The Pitch, Part 3: Let’s Just Write It, Shall, We?

This blog post first appeared on Amorina Rose Writes.

So, after two weeks struggling with writer’s block, I’ve finally realised I’d be better off doing something else: I’m going to send The Sapience Assessment off to Agents and Publishers (A&Ps).

Which gives me a good excuse to write another diatribe about pitches. Sorry if this is a long one!

It turns out that most A&Ps don’t request a pitch, as such. They all want a synopsis and at least part of the manuscript, perhaps with a cover letter. My advice here is: write the pitch anyway and put it in the cover letter. For the reasons why you absolutely need a pitch see Part 1: managing expectations.

Engineer that I am, to me a pitch has a logic to it. First, make sure it conveys all the information the A&P needs to know, and second, emphasise the key element of the story (as discussed in Part 1). To get all the information in there, the simplest way is just to use a check-list of question words. Here’s the recipe I’m using for my pitch:

  1. Genre statement
  2. Background to the series
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Series theme
  1. Pitch for this book
  • Who?
  • What?
  • Why?
  • (How?) optional
  1. Genre Statement

I already discussed the importance and pitfalls of the genre statement in Part 2, so I won’t go through that again. Just be aware of the implicit assumptions that a genre statement generates so be as specific on the book type as you can.

  1. Background to the Series

Most books will not need this section.

The where? and when? questions are only relevant if your book has a historical or geographical setting which forms a point of interest. So if you’ve written a historical drama you ought to mention the period, if your book is set in Mongolia, that’s important, but you would not normally have a separate section, you would probably mention them in the main book pitch.

In my case, I have this separate section because my book is part of a series set in the future on different planets and I felt that was important information to get across before delving into the main pitch.

Also, my series has an overarching theme, which I wanted to mention. It’s increasingly common, especially since the Harry Potter phenomenon, for a series of books, while stories in their own right, to work progressively towards solution to an overall issue.

  1. Pitch for this book

Books in different genres are likely to have different styles of pitch, so my recipe may not work for you. You might, for instance, keep the question checklist but change the order, or you might want to just run with other concepts.

            Who?

I put the who? question first is a way of indicating that this is character-based fiction. This is showing that, in my mind, the most important aspect of my story is the main character and her arc.

In this book, I only have one main character, so this part should be easy. In later books I might mention two key characters, but I suspect any more than that would be too cumbersome for a brief pitch.

Who? Means the character’s name and some indication of who they are or what they desire. So in my book, I have Thea Hyde, an intelligence operative who is desperate to get back to fieldwork after an injury.

Examples in other genres: a young woman, dissatisfied with her life in some way, is seeking escape, excitement, or love (romance genre); someone with a special skill is chosen (perhaps unwillingly) to fulfil a role or quest (fantasy genre).

What?

This is where I put the ‘plot question’ – what is the driver of the plot, the problem to be solved, or the threat to be overcome?

This is a tough one for me. My book has several plot threads, each with their own question.

Ostensibly, Thea’s mission is to find out whether a certain alien species is sapient, so that they can be saved from extinction. The trouble is, most readers don’t seem able to generate much sympathy for giant talking termites, so they don’t care. It’s a weak question.

As it turns out, the mission is a front for political manoeuvrings, with other aliens trying to sabotage it for their own ends. At the start of the story, though, this is not known, so the only question I could pose might be: who is trying to sabotage the mission and why? Again, it seems weak.

My main character has her own question to solve, too. An amnesiac, she is trying to recover understanding of who she is and why she has elevated duty to the Federation above all else. Perhaps there is another question: will she rediscover herself?

As I write this, I still don’t know which question I’m going to use (sigh).

Why?

This introduces the stakes. Why is it so important for the Who? to overcome the What?

Be careful – I find many people neglect this one. There’s a temptation to assume that readers will understand the stakes without being told.

Don’t assume. We actually need to be told that if the young woman in the romance does not find love, she will fall into depression / slavery / poverty / succumb to the evil stepmother. We need to be told that if the fantasy quest fails it will mean the slaughter of innocents / fall of the kingdom / extinction of the dragons/elves/race of men. We need to know that this story is important.

Now I’ve written that, I’ve realised I have no mention of the Why? in my previous attempts at pitches. Haha. Guess I’d better learn to walk the talk.

How?

I tend to present the pitch as a teaser, telling the A&P what the protagonist needs to do, but not going as far as how she does it, or even whether or not she succeeds. I think that’s best left to the synopsis, so this is optional.

3…2…1…Lift-off !

Here we go:

The Sapience Assessment (science fiction, 81,500 words) is the first book in my Transhumanity Series. These are soft SF adventures aimed at a new adult readership. The overall theme is a questioning of what makes us human, following a young woman who, over the course of four books, is transformed into a cyborg.

The series is set in the 24th century, a time in which transference links provide instantaneous travel between planets. Humans are one of dozens of species in the Sapients’ Interplanetary Federation (SIF), run by the powerful Sowers. The human government has developed a strong presence in SIF through its military arm, Exforce, and intelligence service, Macropol, but the Federation is under threat from the H!ane (Hakkannay). 

Macropol Recorder Thea Hyde, who’s been sidelined for a year by injury, jumps at a chance to recover her self-esteem and field agent status. She is to use her neural implants to record the work of a scientific team, sent to assess the sapience of an alien species and decide whether they will be granted asylum and saved from extinction. When someone attempts to sabotage the mission it is up to Thea to discover who and why. The treachery she uncovers will have implications for herself and the entire Federation.

Hope that’s helpful to people, to see my take on writing pitches. Comments on my pitch effort will be very welcome!

The Pitch, Part 1: The Importance of Managing Expectations

A pitch sounds like such a simple thing, doesn’t it? Just a few sentences describing what your novel is, essentially, about.

If only it were that easy.

Synopses are hard enough, giving us the challenge of condensing tens of thousands of words into one or two pages, complete with all major characters and plot threads, but I maintain that pitches are harder. The difficulty is all in that word up there: ‘essentially’. Somehow we have to submit our story to filtration, fermentation, distillation, whatever arcane chemistry we can think of, to reveal its ‘essence’.

There are no shortcuts here, it has to be done. The pitch is crucially important.

I know this because I recently finished a novel with which I was very pleased. It was one of those in which the story just seemed to flow from fingers to screen. In just a few months I had a complete draft and – get this – there was nothing I was unhappy about, no nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite right.

So I sent it to my Agent. She came back to me saying she’d tried to read it but couldn’t get into it. She didn’t like the characters. She’d given up. Ouch.

With hindsight, her reaction was not surprising. My protagonist spends 40% of the novel feeling suicidally depressed and 50% being evil. Love and redemption come, eventually, in the final two chapters.

You may be wondering why I would write a story like that. Well, I could say that this book is part of a series, so the reader will be already familiar with and sympathetic to the main character, but no, that would be making excuses. In my view, every book has to stand alone.

The fact is, I never intended the reader to particularly like the characters. I wanted them to recognise that their behaviour was wrong, was deviant, and hate them for it. Why? Because the whole theme of the story was about placing people in an inhuman situation, manipulating them to despicable acts, and investigating whether they could regain their empathy and humanity. It was intended to portray a dystopian society from which my characters need to extricate themselves.

Did I make that clear to my Agent when I sent her the book? No. I had labelled it as science fiction, as a story about a cyborg spy whose mission to another planet goes awry. In my pitch I failed to get across the essence of the story, allowing her to start into the book expecting one type of story and getting another. I had failed to manage her expectations.

The last thing an aspiring author needs is a disappointed reader. It is when readers assume things about the nature of our books, and then discover that their assumptions were unfounded, that we get those one- and two- star reviews.

This is why the pitch is so important – it is our only tool to manage the expectations of the reader (or Agent or Publisher) so that they are mentally prepared for the type of story we are giving them. If it is a thematic story, they should be reading with that in mind, looking for the underlying theme and delighting when they find it. If they are not supposed to like the characters, they need to know that, and we need to offer them something else instead – some point of interest to keep them involved with the story.

I could go on, there is so much more to say on the subject of pitches. I’ll be back…