The Secret Recipe for Writing a Perfect Pitch

All the right ingredients can make magic...

All the right ingredients can make magic…

Today, I am preparing to teach this weekend at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference, so I asked Marcy to guest post on an important topic. Conference season is upon us. Many of you will be talking to agents and editors soon. Or, you might be wracking your brain trying to nail down the hook for a query letter. Marcy is a master at teaching how to refine those tens of thousands of words into something coherent and interesting….

Take it away, Marcy!

***

Writing a book is easy…at least when compared to what we need to do after we finish. We had 50,000 to 100,000 words to write our novel, and now we have to condense that down into a couple of paragraphs for an agent pitch, query letter, Amazon description, or back cover copy.

It feels unfair. Mean really. After all, if we’d wanted to write something short, we would have written a short story.

But it’s not as scary as you might think if you break it down into a formula. If formula sounds too scientific, then think of it as baking cookies and this is your secret recipe to cookies a pitch that will make anyone’s mouth water.

Hook + Character Introduction + First Plot Point + (Optional) Closing Sentence

Start with a hook.

There are a few ways to do this.

You could start with your tagline or with a couple of catchy sentences written specifically for the description.

It wasn’t that she wanted to live forever. She just didn’t want to die – from the description of Stealing Time by Elisa Paige.

I call these the “ooo” openings because the whole point is to make you go “ooo” and keep reading.

You could also just jump right in with a really interesting fact about your main character or about the setting.

Most everyone thinks Ward of Hurog is a simple-minded fool—and that’s just fine by him – from Dragon Bones by Patricia Briggs

It tells you a lot about a character when they don’t mind letting people think they’re stupid. You immediately want to know if he’s really a simple-minded fool. And if he’s not, why doesn’t he mind being thought of as stupid? In other words, curiosity drives you to read the rest.

Introduce your main character.

All you really need is their name and a descriptor. Try to stick to one sentence or less.

Indiana Jones, a professor of archeology…

Young hobbit Frodo Baggins…

Go to the First Plot Point.

The point in the story that I want you to aim for goes by a lot of different names. James Scott Bell talks about it as the point of no return, a door closes forever behind the character, taking them out of Act 1 and into Act 2.

Some people will call this the inciting incident.

In his fantastic book Story Engineering, Larry Brooks calls it the First Plot Point. I like this term best because the First Plot Point and the inciting incident can be the same, but they can also be different. Don’t worry. I’m going to explain it all.

When we talk about the inciting incident, we usually mean the event that changes everything for our protagonist. It disrupts their normal world. In the movie The Fugitive, this is when Richard Kimball is convicted of his wife’s murder and sentenced to death. The inciting incident leads to the decision your main character is going to need to make at the First Plot Point.

The First Plot Point is the point from which your main character can no longer turn back. The main conflict of the story is introduced, and your protagonist commits to their goal. If we go back to our example in The Fugitive, while Richard Kimball is being transported to death row, his bus crashes.

In the confusion, the prisoners on the bus escape. Kimball has to make a choice that sets his goal for the rest of the story. He can wait around for the police to arrive and haul him off to prison, maybe appeal his conviction. Or he can make a run for it and hunt down the man who really killed his wife.

If your book is structured correctly, the First Plot Point is going to be at about the 20-25% mark.

And that’s as much plot as you should be covering in your pitch. No more than the first 20-25%.

This works because you don’t give away any spoilers, you don’t have to get into any twists and turns that might lose your listener/reader, you highlight the main conflict, and most importantly, you leave your listener or reader wanting to know more. And after all, making them want more is the whole point of a pitch.

After the first plot point, you can add one more sentence. No more than one. And keep it simple. The end.

I’m serious. If you don’t have them by that point, neither will your book, and then you have bigger problems.

Let me show you how all this looks when it comes together. This is the Amazon description for Sandra Brown’s Mirror Image.

The crash of a Dallas-bound jet wasn’t just a tragedy to TV reporter Avery Daniels; it was an act of fate that handed her a golden opportunity to further her career. (Hook & Character Introduction) Mistaken for a glamorous, selfish woman named Carole Rutledge, the badly injured Avery would find that plastic surgery had given her Carole’s face, the famous senatorial candidate Tate Rutledge for a husband, and a powerful Texas dynasty for in-laws. And as she lay helpless in the hospital, she would make a shattering discovery: Someone close to Tate planned to assassinate him. (First Plot Point) Now, to save Tate’s life, Avery must live another woman’s life — and risk her own… (+1 Sentence)

Want to learn more about creating loglines, taglines, and pitches?

On Saturday, May 11, I’ll be teaching a 90-minute webinar where I give even more tips on crafting awesome loglines, taglines, and pitches. You can sign up or learn more by clicking here. If you can’t make it at the time it’s scheduled but still want to attend, sign up anyway. The webinar will be recorded and sent to registrants along with a PDF of the slides.

I’ve also put together something special as a thank you to people who sign up for my newsletter where I let you know about my upcoming classes and books. I’m offering a free PDF called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Hiring a Freelance Editor But Were Too Confused to Ask. Click here to sign up for your copy.

What do you struggle with most when it comes to writing your pitch?

****

About Marcy Kennedy

Marcy is a fantasy writer who believes there’s always hope—sometimes you just have to dig a little harder to find it. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance editor for both fiction and non-fiction. You can find her blogging about writing on Wednesdays/Thursdays and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth on Mondays and Fridays Because Fantasy Is More Real Than You Think…

Marcy Kennedy, WANA Instructor Extraordinaire

Marcy Kennedy, WANA Instructor Extraordinaire

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  1. #1 by Cate Masters on May 3, 2013 - 9:13 am

    Thanks for the excellent points Marcy. You make it look so easy!🙂

  2. #2 by Lanette Kauten on May 3, 2013 - 9:18 am

    I have mine memorized already, and since I’m pitching tomorrow, I don’t want to change a word. I might confuse myself. But these are excellent points, and I re-tweeted this blog post.

  3. #3 by TLJeffcoat on May 3, 2013 - 9:20 am

    Excellent tips, Marcy! I never realized there was a specific way to write the back cover. I was intimidated by this until now. Huge time saver! Thank goodness I use Story Engineering because my inciting incident and plot points are all labeled in my outline.🙂

    • #4 by Marcy Kennedy on May 3, 2013 - 10:10 am

      I’m a plotter too, so before I write, I lay out my inciting incident, plot points, midpoint, and pinch points. I love how much easier that makes every step along the way for me🙂

  4. #5 by MonaKarel on May 3, 2013 - 9:24 am

    I thought I had a great pitch line: “Story of a three thousand year old man and the woman he’s been sent to kill.” It got me a lot of submission requests. Many edits and revisions later, after publication, I realized: “An Immortal Enforcer. An Innocent Woman. The soul he forgot he possessed” was MUCH more effective. If I’d read this a few years back, I would have missed a lot of learning by stumbling around. THANKS

    • #6 by Marcy Kennedy on May 3, 2013 - 10:31 am

      Hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it🙂 Sometimes we do learn a lot from doing it the hard way though.

    • #7 by Tannis Laidlaw on May 3, 2013 - 6:26 pm

      Your first pitch was spectacular, Mona! Far clearer than your retrospective one, IMHO.

  5. #8 by everwalker on May 3, 2013 - 9:30 am

    Reblogged this on everwalker.

  6. #9 by Melissa Bowersock on May 3, 2013 - 9:35 am

    Great post, and very timely. I just finished book number 11 and I’m formulating the pitch and blurbs now. I’ve always done this by feel, but it’s nice to think about the structure. Thanks!

  7. #10 by lucewriter on May 3, 2013 - 9:39 am

    In the Kidder and Todd book Good Prose they advocate beginning with a quiet opening (rather than a hook). What do you think about that?

    • #11 by Marcy Kennedy on May 3, 2013 - 10:08 am

      I think we live in an ADHD society. Even just in the last 5-10 years, attention spans have shortened, and we’ve turned into a culture of skimmers. With all you’re competing with now to hold someone’s attention, I don’t think we have the luxury of opening our pitch quietly (unless perhaps we’re writing literary fiction).

      It is smart to preface your actual pitch (the part that tells what your story is about) with genre and word count if you’re pitching an agent. For example, “Digging Up Daisies is a 75,000-word romantic suspense.” This tells them right away that what you’re pitching is appropriate for them, and it gives them a context in which to place the body of your pitch (described above). That way their mind is focused on your pitch rather than on trying to guess at what genre your book is.

      • #12 by lucewriter on May 3, 2013 - 5:05 pm

        I think hooks are important today, so I was really astonished to read them writing that.

  8. #13 by K.B. Owen on May 3, 2013 - 9:42 am

    Marcy, these are great tips! Just long enough for an elevator ride… 😉

  9. #14 by SweetSong on May 3, 2013 - 9:45 am

    Wow, thanks! I’ve always struggled with even the concept of the pitch. This is amazing!

  10. #15 by Judith Post on May 3, 2013 - 10:02 am

    Awesome! Great advice for writing book blurbs too (which is none too easy for me).

  11. #16 by patrickoscheen on May 3, 2013 - 10:07 am

    Marcy makes everything look easy!

  12. #17 by DakotaSByrd on May 3, 2013 - 10:09 am

    This is great! Can I ask though, if anybody has advice on writing a pitch for a YA urban fantasy novel written in the first person but from four points of view? I have been trying to figure out how to do this for a few months now and keep coming up blank…😦

    • #18 by Marcy Kennedy on May 3, 2013 - 10:30 am

      Even if you have four POV characters, your pitch will focus on your main character.

      Which character’s decision/problem sets the story in motion? Which of your POV characters has the most to lose? Which one is going to be the one to beat the antagonist/villain in the final showdown? Usually you’ll write your pitch focusing on that character.

  13. #19 by gretchenwing on May 3, 2013 - 10:18 am

    Thanks for the refresher, Marcy. Comes at a good time, as I’m heaving a huge sigh and gearing up for another pitching season…

  14. #20 by amyskennedy on May 3, 2013 - 10:46 am

    Awesome Marcy!

  15. #21 by Celeste on May 3, 2013 - 10:47 am

    and this one…

  16. #22 by Ensis on May 3, 2013 - 11:16 am

    I did wonder–The example you showed us is one which is a lot longer than what I’ve been reading is the norm for a pitch (two sentences)–can you elaborate on the situations in which it is appropriate to use a longer vs. shorter pitch?
    I ask because I’m currently submitting to agents, constantly tweaking my pitch, and always finding out a few days after I sent the email that I’ve made some minor mistake in my query😦

    Thanks for the post and I do plan to check out your webinar.

    • #23 by Marcy Kennedy on May 3, 2013 - 4:59 pm

      A one- to two-sentence pitch is more commonly called a logline. It can’t stand alone when you’re writing a query letter or doing an in-person agent pitch.

      It can become part of your “elevator pitch,” which is what I describe above and is what you’d want to use in query letters and agent pitches. The elevator pitch is going to be between 6 and 10 sentences, and is what’s most commonly meant when people talk about a pitch.

      The logline is really versatile though. It’s good for promotional material or if you need to quickly tell an agent what your book is about while standing in line for coffee. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give enough detail for a query letter or if you’re supposed to be giving a 60- to 90-second in person pitch during a one-on-one meeting at a conference.

  17. #24 by Karen McFarland on May 3, 2013 - 12:10 pm

    Ooh, this is a fantastic recipe for a great pitch Marcy. And I think you could even take the pitch and shorten it even further for a really tight log-line using your formula. You do have a knack for this girl. Thank you!🙂

  18. #25 by Rhenna Morgan on May 3, 2013 - 12:11 pm

    Perfect timing! I’m just about to start my next query, so I’ll put your suggestions to good use.

  19. #26 by Brenda Harris on May 3, 2013 - 1:14 pm

    Good to know. Helpful tips. Now, to compare my pitches with Marcy’s perfect pitch recipe. 🙂

  20. #27 by Patricia Moore on May 3, 2013 - 1:36 pm

    I write picture book stories. But it seems so hard to condense the story to just a few sentences. Sometimes the story seems a little flat when it’s condensed. Good article though! Helpful!

  21. #28 by Melanie Marttila on May 3, 2013 - 1:37 pm

    Great timing, Marcy! I’m in what I hope to be my final revision before shopping my MS around. I’ve signed up for your course next weekend (squee!)

    • #29 by Marcy Kennedy on May 3, 2013 - 5:01 pm

      Yay! I look forward to having you in the webinar🙂

  22. #30 by jodenton445 on May 3, 2013 - 1:41 pm

    This is so very helpful! And so clear and easy to understand. Thanks so much. That webinar sounds like a must.

  23. #31 by Shea Ford on May 3, 2013 - 3:59 pm

    I wish I’d had this info for my first book. I’ve already come up with the blurb for my WIP (almost finished!), but when I applied this recipie instead, I came up with a much better one! Thank you Marcy!😀 I’ll have to work on the last added sentence though. I’m struggling to keep it simple.

  24. #32 by hcfbutton on May 3, 2013 - 4:18 pm

    This is definitely a keeper. I can hear it now in mind for my ms. Now to edit the MS to live up to it.

  25. #33 by Daniel Escurel Occeno on May 3, 2013 - 5:06 pm

    Have fun at the Dallas/Fort Worth conference. TY, I will re-read since I am getting ready to send a submission, which asked for a pitch with a cover letter.

  26. #34 by Tracy Campbell on May 3, 2013 - 5:23 pm

    Marcy, your awesome tips make an easy-to-follow recipe.🙂

  27. #35 by Deb Trotter Writer on May 3, 2013 - 5:24 pm

    Great post! I just paid for class & then tried to sign in using my WANA password, but it refuses to accept it? HELP!

    • #36 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 3, 2013 - 10:29 pm

      E-mail Jay Donovan. Jay at tech surgeons dot com and he can get you sorted.😀

  28. #37 by authorleannedyck on May 3, 2013 - 5:51 pm

    Thank you for this helpful article. You made it so easy. Now all I have to add is my bio, the genre and the word count and I have a query letter. I’ve shared this article with my writing group.

  29. #38 by asiatrainers on May 3, 2013 - 10:56 pm

    Thanks Kristen. You really motivated me to write my 2nd book, thanks.

  30. #39 by Ellen Gregory on May 3, 2013 - 11:50 pm

    Great post, Marcy – this is something I struggle with, so much so that I posted last night on the subject, after recently attending a convention where pitching was a hot topic. (Off to add cross-link to this post…)

  31. #40 by pamelacreese on May 4, 2013 - 11:47 am

    great information… appreciate your delineation of inciting incident vs 1st plot point. Alas, l have yet to get the hang of taglines (although l am not bad at them for friend’s novels, they really like them…does it have something to do with being too close to one’s own work?)
    Thanks for the post, Marcy.

  32. #41 by Debra Eve on May 4, 2013 - 3:14 pm

    Marcy, always appreciate your insight and experience on this subject!

  33. #42 by Yvette Carol on May 4, 2013 - 4:08 pm

    Honestly, Kristen, I save so many of your posts that my computer is loaded down! I need a file just for these blog posts…

    • #43 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 4, 2013 - 6:15 pm

      I need to just put a lot of this stuff in books for you guys. My next project😀.

      • #44 by pamelacreese on May 4, 2013 - 6:21 pm

        BOOKS? Oh shoot yeash! That would be a lovely project

  34. #45 by Blancavo on May 5, 2013 - 2:35 pm

    Reblogueó esto en blancavo.

  35. #46 by Sinistra Inksteyne on May 6, 2013 - 3:13 am

    Fascinating how movie and book structures can be so alike – the skeletons so similar when the bodies are so different. At the end of the day, a story’s a story, however you choose to tell it.

  36. #47 by SandraR on May 6, 2013 - 3:45 am

    Terrific and very helpful post. You really do make it all look so easy. Thanks for sharing.

  37. #48 by Tamara LeBlanc on May 6, 2013 - 5:23 pm

    Fantastic!!! I love learning new ways of doing things and this lesson is a keeper! The tips and formula you’ve offered are perfect. Thanks so much Marcy Kennedy. This post is getting pinned!
    Thanks Kristen for having, Marcy!!
    Have a great evening, ladies🙂

    Tamara

  38. #49 by Maryann Miller (@maryannwrites) on May 6, 2013 - 5:25 pm

    Thanks for clarifying the difference between a pitch and a logline. For film scripts, most often we are asked for a logline and a one-page synopsis and the whole package is called a pitch. These terms can get confusing when they have subtle differences. Now I understand a pitch for a book and how that differs from what I was doing.

  39. #50 by Kim Cleary on May 8, 2013 - 7:24 am

    very helpful Marcy, especially the tip about working the first plot point and highlighting the main conflict.

  40. #51 by lythya on May 14, 2013 - 3:03 am

    The inciting incident isn’t really the turning point from act 1 to act 2. The turning point is when the character makes a decision to DO something and then in act 2 he/she DOES it. The inciting incident is the thing that the character has to do stuff about. Ex. in Eragon he finds a dragon egg – inciting incident – but not until he leaves his village to become a dragon rider does he enter act 2, and that’s a good 100 pages later.

  41. #52 by lythya on May 14, 2013 - 3:07 am

    I’m so looking forward to after summer when I have time to enter these webinars😀

  42. #53 by Piano Chords on January 4, 2014 - 11:55 pm

    Wow, this post is pleasant, my younger sister is analyzing these kinds of things, therefore I am
    going to let know her.

  43. #54 by Editor on April 3, 2014 - 9:58 pm

    Reblogged this on Virtual Book Tour.

  44. #55 by Nicole Dacanay on March 30, 2015 - 9:15 am

    Thank you SO much for this! I found it incredibly helpful and it’s really made me feel less stressed, too. Writing a pitch has been very hard for me! Also loved the cookie recipe analogy :)!

  45. #56 by Nicole Dacanay on March 30, 2015 - 5:57 pm

    Reblogged this on Team Wanderlust and commented:
    As I slowly build my own pitch and query, I thought this post would be great to share. It’s funny – short form querying and pitching me is stressing me out WAY more than my 90k + word novel ever has!

  46. #57 by MonaKarel on March 30, 2015 - 6:07 pm

    SO glad this showed up again in my inbox. Not only good for a pitch but also GREAT for a blurb!

  47. #58 by MonaKarel on March 30, 2015 - 7:50 pm

    Reblogged this on Mona Karel Author.

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