Answer this question in one sentence: What’s your novel about? The answer is called an elevator pitch, a must-have pithy description short enough to deliver during a three-minute elevator ride.
It’s not easy to come up with a concise sentence that delivers the gist of your novel compellingly, but crafting book descriptions of twenty-five or fewer words is an essential skill in a world where agents can rarely lend an ear for more than a couple of minutes to an unknown author.
CREATE A PITCH THAT SELLS
Your initial pitch serves as the bait to hook agents and make them want to hear more. It should be character-driven. If, in the words of John D. MacDonald, a story is “stuff [that] happens to people you care about,” then a pitch should explain who is trying to do what and why (what the stakes are).
PITCHES OF CELEBRATED AUTHORS
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer—
NOT: A pack of vampires infiltrates a suburban Washington community.
A young girl risks her soul to love a vampire boyfriend.
Breaking Bad, AMC TV drama—
NOT: A man is forced to sell drugs to provide for his family after his death.
INSTEAD: A high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer teams with a former student to manufacture crystal meth to secure his family’s future (from a Netflix blurb)
Here’s a pitch by Jon Land, the author of Blood Strong: “Female Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong takes on homegrown terrorists as she races to solve the one mystery that eluded her legendary Ranger father and grandfather.” (ZING!)
And here are pitches I came up with for my novel and for two stories:
- A grief-stricken mother defies her husband by developing an intimacy with a charismatic male medium who promises to make contact with her dead toddler. (Ninth-Month Midnight)
- When a self-conflicted schoolteacher discovers her younger sister is a drug addict, she takes steps to protect herself against her sister’s accelerating destructiveness. (“Golden Girl”)
- A middle-aged daughter grapples with past demons and her mother’s brutal unkindness to secure a future for herself. (“Mother’s Day”)
MORE PITCHING ADVICE
Kathleen Antrim, a successful author, sums up her major plotlines in no more than twenty-five words. She uses a “What if . . . So what” strategy to:
- convey the major conflict (plotline) of the story.
- reveal the protagonist.
- suggest why we should care enough to read the story.
If an idea can’t be contained in this simple framework, it’s probably not focused enough.
Following are a few examples of the “What if . . . So what” pitch. (I’ve underlined the stakes.)
- What if a cyborg is sent back through time to kill the mother of the future savior of mankind? (Terminator, 19 words)
- What if the first lady is plotting to overthrow the president? (Capital Offense, Kathleen Antrim, 11 words)
- What if a young girl risks her soul to love a vampire boyfriend? (Twilight, Stephanie Meyer, 13 words).
In each case, you’ve not only told the agent what your book is about, but you’ve also engaged him or her emotionally in the action of the protagonist. Both Land and Antrim emphasize the importance of stressing this emotional component.
The point I want to drive home is simple: a good pitch is an invaluable tool that you’ll use again and again: when you’re sitting at a book signing and someone asks you what your book is about; when you want to hook an agent; and when you’re trying to sell your book to an editor. The editor, in turn, will use it when explaining your book to the sales-and-marketing team, who will use it to sell your novel to the bookstores.
Voila! You’re on you way.