Thursday, June 10, 2010

Writing the Breakout Pitch

I haven't met a writer yet who likes writing query letters. And why should we? We're pitching our stories to strangers. Everything depends on whether we convince them just how wonderful and brilliant our 300 page novel is. And in no less than one page, I might add. Because if we don't, no matter how wonderful and brilliant our novel is, nobody but us is going to know.

But how do you take a 300 page story and condense it down to one or two paragraphs?

In his workbook Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass implies it's pretty simple. I know - I know, you're thinking Balderdash...  or something along that line. But as Donald suggests, when was the last time somebody told you about a terrific movie they saw at the show, and the way they explained it convinced you to see said movie on movie night?  When was the last time you bought a book because of word-of-mouth? When was the last time you checked out a game on the net because your buddy convinced you you'd love it? When was the last time you went on a blind date even though you swore you never would again, because your best friend convinced you otherwise?

Yes, it's scary to think you can learn anything from a fourteen year old, but if you have contact with one, listen to how they describe their favourite something.

As Donald Maass says, the secret is brevity. Start with genre, (he needs to know who to pitch the story to), include setting and protagonist, state the problem, and show how your take on the situation is new. Oh, and practise!

Exercise: (remove my answers and insert yours:

1. Write down your novel's

- Title: _________ (Dead Witness)

- Genre: _________(Suspense Thriller)

- Setting: ________ (small town Canada, Baja California, Mexico, Nevada, and Seattle)

- Protagonist: ________(Canadian wife and mother - Valerie McCormick)

- Problem: ___________ (Valerie, a foreigner, witnesses a double murder while on vacation in Seattle. The FBI convince her to testify, and now the killer, a powerful drug-lord knows where she lives.)

2. What makes your story different or unique?

_____________________________________________(When the murderer sends someone to kill Valerie, the FBI can't locate her family in time and are forced to kidnap Valerie to trick the killer into believing she's dead. Only now her husband, three daughters and her brother, Private Investigator Aidan Roth also believe she's dead. Cooperative Valerie becomes the hunter)

* * * * * 

For those of you who have read the story, you know it's more complicated than that. There are several subplots and there are important relationships between Valerie and her children and her brother that are vital to the story. But my job isn't to describe detail to a potential agent. My job and yours is to give them something to get excited about.

Here's some famous pitches:

The Girl With The Dragon Tattooby Stieg Larsson
Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist is hired by Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of Vanger’s great-niece Harriet. Henrik suspects that someone in his family, the powerful Vanger clan, murdered Harriet over forty years ago. Starting his investigation, Mikael realizes that Harriet’s disappearance is not a single event, but rather linked to series of gruesome murders in the past. He now crosses paths with Lisbeth Salander, a young computer hacker, an asocial punk and most importantly, a young woman driven by her vindictiveness.

A Time to Kill, by John Grisham
The life of a ten-year-old girl is shattered by two drunken and remorseless young men, The mostly white town reacts with shock and horror at the inhuman crime. Until her black father acquires an assault rife -- and takes justice into his own outraged hands. For ten days, as burning crosses and the crack of sniper fire spread through the streets of Clanton, the nation sits spellbound as young defense attorney Jake Brigance struggles to save his client's life... and then his own.

In the Shadow of Evil, by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier
This murder mystery is set in the foothills of the Rockies. The main character, Christine, is a Métis woman who struggles to deal with the sudden loss of her husband and child. Haunted by her own childhood of a broken family, sibling rivalry and foster homes, Christine's life suddenly unravels revealing the ghosts and events of her past. All is brought to a suspenseful and surprising conclusion.

Dark Knowledge by Keith Pyeatt
When good and evil intertwine, taking one means accepting the other. When Wesley discovers a world inside his mind, he-s offered more than just an escape from mental illness. He-s given gifts of knowledge he carries back to the physical world -- unaware that with the good, comes the bad. As knowledge builds Wesley's intellect and gives him the ability to heal sick friends, he-s thrust into an evil contest, pitted against opponents who have trained their entire lives to kill. As Wesley fights for his life in two worlds, piecing together his mind and his heritage, the harder it becomes to distinguish good from evil. The greater his intellect, the more difficult his choices-and sacrifices.


  1. Based on having read Maass's book and also my editing experience for the past while and reading through the slushpile, my advice to authors is to keep it simple. Tell me exactly what you're offering.

    Start your summary with enough hook for me to go on to reading the synopsis and the first chapter. Think back-cover copy for a novel's query letter blurb then you're safe.

    I need to know what genre, how many words and whether the MS is complete. It's also nice to know if you're subbing elsewhere simultaneously but not essential.

    Then, tell me what previous publishing creds you have, if any. Don't try to pass of self-pubbing stints as creds. It won't wash.

    And leave it at that. I generally don't have time to click through on links to authors' websites unless there's something about their query that really fascinates me. But that's rare.

  2. I would suggest adding the word count, as Nerine mentions, and also our complete contact information. From what I've read on agents' blogs it's surprising how many people forget to include it.

    Writers don't always realize that a query/pitch doesn't need to tell the entire story, not even the main plot points. It's not a synopsis. The main purpose is to hook the agent with story basics that also demonstrate our voice and writing ability.

    For me it's much easier said than done!

  3. So true, Nerine. I should probably mention that this exercise is more for "the Pitch" part of the query letter. The writer also needs to include past creds and everything else you mentioned. Mr. Maass asked me to paraphrase, and this time I got stuck on finding another term for "the pitch". This particular exercise in question was primarily for that special moment when you need to say what the book's about. You know the moment -- when you find yourself stuck in an elevator with the likes of Donald Maass for instance.

    Carol, easier said than done is right! I continually struggle with the pitch for my book. Even when I'm in the grocery store and someone from the neighbourhood says, "I hear you wrote a book. What's it about?" And I stand there frozen in place then start stuttering. It's not a pretty sight. LOL.

  4. This is such a great blog!

    They really are harder to write than you first think!
    I know I wrote a few early query letters that were terrible!

    Loved being able to read the famous ones,



  5. Hi Rebecca. Thanks for being so nice, for stopping by and leaving a comment. I am thrilled that you enjoy this blog. That means a lot.

  6. Hi Joylene - So let's say you effectively cut your pitch to about 100 words (doable) - THEN you have to include a short 'this is who I am & what I've done' part. I'm gonna write one for the hell of it... I mean heck of it. Can't wait to get to the career - writing background - education part. It'll be blank!

    And Rebecca M is right about your blog but I'm not going to come out & say it 'cause I don't want your ego to go spinning outta control.

  7. Hi Joylene:
    Another helpful post. I guess I'm going to have to practice pitches if I ever want to make the transition from small publishers to the ones that have money.

    Chris H.

  8. Hi Dave. Yes, do start practising your pitch letters. The more you practise the easier it gets. I promise.

    Hi Chris. When you're ready send them to me if you like. The least I can do is lend a helping hand.

    I did read a rough draft of "Arrival" but reading the finished product... there's nothing like it.

  9. I truly enjoyed this post! Something to keep on hand for when my time to query comes.

    Thanks, and it's good to 'see' you again!

  10. Late to the party, but helpful post, Joylene. How many times have you and I traded pitches, synopses, and query letters, as well as novels? It's fun being codependent with/on you. *smile*

  11. Hi Keith. Seems to me I made you write my first pitch after bellyaching for a week. "Boo Hoo, Please Keith, write my synopis!"

    Yes -- it's been super great sharing this process with you. See you in Montreal!


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