“A first-time novelist sets the record at a writers conference for the most pitches, leading to a multiple-book deal, awards, translations, excellent reviews and a movie option. An inspiring true success story, a literary version of Seabiscuit, except the horse is a writer.”
As pitches go, this one’s devoid of conflict, but that’s the point. This scenario actually happened to me. Hence my qualification for writing this article.
My writing students get nervous when I ask them to pitch their works-in-progress on the first day of class, particularly if they’re just starting. “I wouldn’t know how to describe it,” they say. “I don’t know what it’s about.”
And therein lies the problem. To some degree, we can’t know what our novel/memoir/screenplay/play/nonfiction book is entirely about until we’ve gotten it down. But I contend that thinking about the pitch ahead of time helps focus a writer’s goals for a piece. It’s not just a commercial concern, it’s an artistic one.
Writers are storytellers and a pitch is simply another story that you’re telling. A very, very short one. Rather than view pitching as if you were a salesman in a bad suit hawking used cars, imagine that you’re a pitcher for the Yankees and that the agent or editor is the catcher: They’re on your team, so they really want to catch the ball.
Or, put another way, you’re a different kind of pitcher, this one full of cool, refreshing water that will fill their empty glass.
But first you’ve got to get their attention.
“I need something to grab me right away that tells me exactly why I should want to read this submission (of all the submissions on my desk),” says Christina Pride, senior editor at Hyperion.
A hook is exactly what it sounds like—a way to grab a reader like a mackerel and reel them in. It’s not a plot summary, but more like the ad campaign you’d see on a movie poster. Veteran Hollywood screenwriter Cynthia Whitcomb, who teaches the pitching workshop at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon, recommends that writers of all genres start with a hooky tagline like this one from Raiders of the Lost Ark:
“If adventure had a name, it’d be Indiana Jones.”
That’s not just first-rate marketing, it’s excellent storytelling.
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