What your Novel Pitch Might Tell You

So you’ve written your novel – now what?

At the most simplistic level, manuscripts are composed of two things: a story and (usually) words. Often, one of those is harder for writers to develop than the other. Some writers need to do more focused learning on either the elements of story or for writing itself, including voice, style, and mechanics. Once your book is at pitch-writing point—written, revised, revised again, hopefully read by critique partners/beta readers, revised again—you can use the pitch to see if your story comes off as one that appeals to the consumer.

A pitch packages plot, character, and conflict into one digestible minute (or 50, 100, or 125 words, depending on the source advice) with one ultimate goal: getting someone else to want to read your book. If the industry stars align, then it can lead to someone doing so, and then wanting to publish your book, too.

A pitch is a sales tool, often used in some form in a query letter, flap copy for a book, at conferences, in line at the grocery store, to your uncle at Thanksgiving, and in the proverbial elevator. Basically, it’s a business-minded piece of text, meant for you to describe your work to someone who can make career/entertainment decisions about your book and yet who has not read a single word and has possibly never even met you.

You read that right. Pitches suck.

But there’s one really great thing about them: They can help you identify what you need to revise.

I know, I know—you just wrote and revised the novel! It’s been proofread! You can recite the thing in your sleep! You are an excellent writer, and you’re read! And if you are ready, then the pitch may very well nearly write itself (after you teach yourself the art of pitch-writing, that is). But if you’re not ready, then an annoyingly red flag may begin to wave.

Pitch language is weird. It’s in the messy space between trying to convince someone to buy and read your book without spoiling it, and doing so in such a way that prizes brevity and someone else’s time. It can be hard to fit all the nuanced elements of a high fantasy into palatable, explainable language, and harder still to elevate a quieter work into something more exciting. (Been there, done that.)

To begin developing your pitch beyond your family or friend dinner table—and subsequently seeing if you need to revise again (because remember, you will nearly always revise again)—go through your book with a very honest eye. Try to be as objectionable as possible, distancing yourself from your work and pretending it’s someone else’s. These days, I ask myself a series of questions I’ve collected over time (that I did not invent, and exist in various forms in classrooms and the internet such as here) before I put a pen to page, as I learned this the hard way.

The questions you can use to test your book are:

1. What does my protagonist want?

  • Be specific here. (Be specific everywhere.) For the sake of a story, a jazz dancer may want something different than a dystopian freedom fighter. Does your character want something they go after from early on in the
    novel? (If not, maroon flag.)

2. Why do they want it? What flaw, fear, or trait have I crafted that would make
them want it?

  • Why does this particular thing—physical, emotional, or otherwise—matter so deeply to them? What are their fears? Their innermost desires? What
    brings them happiness? What threatens their well-being, or their actual being? (Would they be okay without it? Crimson flag.) Make this personal.
  • Examples: A trophy, a gilded coin, happiness, love, solitude, survival . . .)

3. What will happen if they do not attain it?

  • Will they wake up tomorrow, shrug, and find something new? Red flag.
  • Examples: They want to prove to their mother they are just as good as their brother, a gilded coin gives its owner power, happiness is fairly
    supreme, they fear being alone, they want to escape city life/or person(s),
    they will die . . .)

4. What key conflicts/challenges do they face while trying to achieve this goal?

  • Are there enough? In other words, have you accidentally written 300
    pages of feelings and descriptions of nature without actually creating and
    fulfilling a character desire? Or—are things only happening to your protagonist? Do they have enough agency? Are they making the choices, or is an external obstacle doing it for them?
  • Examples: The family inheritance will vanish, if a gilded coin is not granted then the kingdom will perish, they will be sad, they will not attain the commitment they wanted, they will burn out mentally, emotionally, or
    physically, they will no longer exist . . .)

5. What is my hook and/or inciting incident?

  • What makes your story fresh? Has it been written before, or is it too close to your comp titles? (Rarely, your voice or writing style may give you a tentative pass on this one, but it is much harder to make your work stand out if you can’t answer this question.)

If you have collected any hedging “nothing that bad will happen” or “they just want it, okay!” answers, then it’s time to practice some self-care to prep yourself to tackle another round of revision. To do that, decide what needs revising. The specific type of revision you’ll implement depends on which of your questions had weaker answers.

For example, if what your protagonist wants is not clearly defined, then go back to the beginning of your novel and make them say it. Make them shout it out, or cry in the bathroom stall while thinking about it, even if you wind up cutting or toning it down later. Then, find a way to weave that specific desire into the arc thereafter. Figure out ways to drop that person, place, thing, or idea into scenes where it wasn’t before. Is the antagonist smelling this gilded coin? Has the teenage protagonist made a no-dating oath with her friends, right before meeting the girl of her dreams?

If you haven’t given your character enough of a reason to “desire” this particular goal, then you may need to dig into their backstory. What do they believe they value more than anything? Do they really value it by the end? (Maybe they shouldn’t.) Have you taken a closer look at their origin story? What event or innate trait do they have that led them to this desire, and is it strong enough?

If “the side effect of not attaining this goal” is not strong enough, then turn to your inciting incident or hook, which I think of as the “why now, why today” moment in time. Take a second to jot down a summary of everything linked to the fallout of the inciting incident. What happened that made the world change for your protagonist? Can they get it right again? Sometimes, you need to go back to the character and fine-tune their backstory here to make this revision work for you. For example, if a character didn’t get the lead role in a theater play—is this a minor disappointment? If so, they’ll move on, and so would your reader. Or, are they trying to use this role to launch their Broadway career? Get in front of a love interest? Prove to their parents that they’re just as good as a sibling? Try something new for the first time? Pay the bills after their parents secretly left, or get a credit in order to graduate?

This one is so much more difficult in what the industry calls “quieter” novels – those that are coming-of-age, for instance, or those without murder, death, outer space, or speculative elements (though certainly not all, and exceptions abound both ways). My absolute favorite piece of advice is to add a ticking time bomb here, which can help add tension and up the pacing in even the softest of novels. Maybe, for instance, this aforementioned gilded coin will turn to dust, or maybe a love interest has a set date to move across the world.

Once you’ve completed another round or twelve of revisions, then do more self-care. Cheers! You revised again. While you wrap up your pitch, here are a handful of other pitch tips:

  • Specificity is key. Instead of saying that you need to sharpen your language, for instance, I might suggest that in order to figure out how to up the ante of what’s at risk, you need to be a narrative archaeologist, using a fancy brush to expose the bones of your stakes. Instead of a character “risking losing it all,” you might write that your character “risks losing his pride after an unfortunate belly-flop incident in front of his love interest,” or “is in danger of collapsing the already-divided political system once and for all.”
  • Potentially, start your pitches with the inciting incident. Examples:

    o When sixteen-year-old violinist Samantha’s father wins the Democratic bid
    for president…
    o In a near-future Boston, violence erupts when eighteen-year-old rebel
    leader Max is accused of aiding the enemy leader, Nate.
  • Age of character, especially if you’re writing MG/YA
  • Audience and Genre (e.g. YA fantasy)

  • Optionally, they should include:

    o Reference to comparative titles, published in the last one to three years, and are not uber-famous. That kind of research shows you know the market. “Perfect for fans of J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer” will probably not work. “Appealing to fans of SADIE by Courtney Summers and PEOPLE LIKE US by Dana Mele” might.
    o If there’s a specific structure to your story, consider naming it.

    • Told in a dual point-of-view…
    • Presented in reverse…
    • Crafted in newspaper articles, podcast excerpts, and diary entries, reminiscent of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE…

No matter what your work looks like, you’ll want to have this skill sharpened. You’ll use it to pitch agents and editors in the future, and you never know when you might get stuck in an elevator at a writing conference!

What’s next for you? Start by grabbing your WIP and asking it those questions. Then, decide if you’re ready for the next step, or if you need to finesse it before you send it into your lucky future agent’s inbox.

Joan Smith web res-Joan F. Smith is a writer, dance teacher, and Associate Dean of Creative Writing. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and is represented by Kerry D’Agostino of Curtis Brown, LTD. A former mentee and now mentor in Author Mentor Match, Joan lives in the Boston area with her husband and their two young kids, where she enjoys traveling and exercise.

Her debut YA novel, THE HALF-ORPHANED HANDBOOK, will be available from Macmillan/Imprint in Winter 2021. You can find more from Joan at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @jf_smit.

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