Writing Excuses 6.19: Pitching

Pitching your work… authors often have difficulty with it. Even authors who have no trouble spinning a fantastic story may find themselves at a loss telling people ABOUT that story in a way that makes it compelling.

We cover three kinds of pitches — the one-liner or “elevator pitch,” the three- or four-paragraph explanation, and the in-depth synopsis. We also talk about the sorts of situations in which you’re going to need these.

Few skills are as important to new authors, and few weaknesses can be as career-limiting.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin, narrated by Don Leslie

Writing Prompt: Take three of your favorite books and write one of each kind of pitch for each of those books. Now convince a friend of yours to read one of those books using one of those pitches.

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48 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.19: Pitching”

  1. I usually don’t write my pitches down because, as a bookseller, I’m actively pitching other people’s books all the time. Sometimes, I only have about ten seconds to describe a book I think a customer might like. Other times, I might be able to talk with a customer for about thirty seconds. On a few rare occasions, I can talk with someone for a few minutes at a time, talking books.

    What I find great about this podcast is that it showed me how to use my everyday job skills to directly promote my own writing.

  2. “Slarpathia”. Awesome. Thanks for this one, even going the epub route, I need to do better at this when trying to talk about my work to anyone. Though “Cult leader fake memoir” is doing okay for the one, I fumble quite a bit when trying to describe my fantasy stuff. Will probably listen to this one twice.

  3. I’m headed to World Fantasy at the end of the month, so this was perfect timing and pure gold. I’ve also always been exceptionally bad at this, but this gave me some new ideas. If anyone has a second and would like to pick at them, here’s the pitches I worked up based on this episode (my thanks in advance; this kind of thing is hard to put through a writing group where everyone’s read the book).

    Elevator Pitch: Lighthearted political fantasy set in an ancient Maya city. [I’m not sure if this is 100% drab or if the Maya part makes it interesting]

    Longer Pitch: Gods used to cut people’s hearts out, chop heads off — the whole messy human sacrifice bit — until someone discovered that contracts could harvest human lives at natural death. Now the most powerful gods aren’t the ones with the sharpest knives, but the largest cities.

    A girl-turned-goddess against her will just wants to keep living on the Mortal Realm. For that, she needs the power only a city can grant. A god recently died, so there’s a city up for grabs — but to get it, she has to win a political battle against older and wiser deities willing to do anything for a piece of the pie.

  4. I agree with Len. When I start pitching my book I’ll be relying heavily on my experience as an independant bookseller.

    @MKHutchins — it sounds like you’re pitching two completely different books. I think both pitches need a little work. Your elevator pitch doesn’t work for me because I don’t find political fantasy to be lighthearted. I’m not saying that it can’t be, just that in my experience that particular sub-genre title doesn’t have that kind association. Plus, the first paragraph of your longer pitch makes the story sound pretty dark.

    I like your longer pitch better, especially the second paragraph, but it still doesn’t grab me. Perhaps you should focus your pitch on the girl-turned-goddess. If I was trying to sell this to one of my customers I’d say something along the lines of this:

    “A Mayan girl becomes a goddess against her will and wants nothing more than to stay in the Mortal Realm with her friends and family. In order to do that, she needs to acquire a city full of worshipers to secure her power base. But the older and wiser deities want those same worshipers for their own purposes. To get what she wants she has to politically outmaneuver the other gods and goddesses.”

    I hope that’s helpful.

  5. Many thanks for this podcast. It’s very reassuring to know that everyone has trouble with this. I’d have liked to hear Brandon sum up one of his epic fantasies in a one-line pitch, though I recall a “What if the hero lost” from an earlier podcast, which is pretty cool. How about doing one of your riffing ‘casts where you just do pitches for different books?

    What’s happened on my on-line crit site is that the writer puts out his/her attempt at a pitch and other people re-write it for them. One of the best re-writers says she can do it for other people, but she is completely unable to write pitches for herself. We’re all just too close.

  6. The way I see it, I can describe my current projects either in terms of character issues or world issues. Both are essential to the story, but the first is more important towards the beginning and the other is more important towards the end. It’s difficult to put both into the same 3-paragraph pitch, let alone elevator pitch. Should I choose one or the other or should I just try to think of something else to focus on?

  7. @Kim — Thanks! It’s always hard to know what pitches will sound like to someone else. It is lighter, somewhere between say, Warbreaker and Dianna Wynne Jones, but I can see how introducing it that way could be confusing. Hopefully I’ll manage not to sound like an idiot. :)

  8. I’ve always been bad at this, especially since my plots tend to be crazy and all over the place. The elevator pitch for my current project is “Mystery novel about cheese,” or possibly “Pushing Daisies meets Thursday Next. With cheese.”

    Possible longer pitch:
    When a cheese inspector’s fiance stumbles upon a bee cult’s attempted human sacrifice and is falsely accused of kidnapping, the two get caught in the middle of an ancient rivalry between two minor Greek deities who are each trying to take control of the government through the nation’s cheese market. They must try to figure out what’s going on and put a stop to it before processed cheese becomes not only disgusting, but dangerous as well.

    I still have no idea how to talk about this novel, but I feel like this podcast is helping me be more focused.

  9. @Ed

    I’d definitely read that.

    I have trouble figuring out what I should and shouldn’t mention in pitches. Like, my current project has a lesbian protagonist, but the gay bit isn’t really a major conflict.

    So do I pitch it as “A girl turns from hero to antivillain as she challenges the armies and gods of her homeland to keep a promise”. Or do I say ‘to save the girl she loves’ despite the promise not the love being the motivator? Or what? (I haven’t put much thought into this until now, so that pitch is pretty terrible, I know).

    Like I said, I don’t think it’s a major factor, but it might matter a lot to an agent or editor.

    And my setting is a bit ahead of the fantasy standard, with rifles and electricity in the more advanced countries. Do I mention that somehow? I have this headache just explaining to random internet people, trying to pitch to someone who can decide the project’s fate terrifies me.

  10. @Brenna
    Saying “Thursday Next with cheese” is redundant. Saying “Thusday Next with even more cheese” on the other hand…

  11. Since we’re throwing pitches around, tell me what you think about mine.

    Elevator pitch: “Alice in Wonderland” meets “Percy Jackson”.

    Long pitch: While Ariana is studying art in Paris, she is given pendant that transports her into the dream world of the ancient Greek gods. Ariana quickly becomes entangled in their deadly games. In a world where nothing is what it seems, she must rely on a former servant of Morpheus to not only help her survive, but also stop a wrathful god from turning the real world into a living nightmare.

  12. @Kim

    I think the short one is better than the long one. It seems to me that the long one describes the project using too many cliches.

    Unfortunately, I’m not clever enough to tell you how to fix it.

  13. I saw the topic for this week and I knew Dan was gonna bring up that Sleeping Beauty story. I’m still so stalled on that thing. The magic won’t work for me and I’m not sure how a 1,000-year-old telepathic princess would talk.

    That’s not gonna stop me from writing something new this NaNoWriMo, and, as usual, I have the pitch before I have the main character’s name (because that’s just how I roll).

    Four word pitch: Clockword clothing fighting pits.

    One sentence pitch: A clockwork artist follows her dreams–and her wayward brother to New York in an alternate 1906.

    Paragraph pitch: Don’t have one yet. There isn’t enough plot. Speaking of which, I have a date with a large pile of history books. Gotta find out if any of my secondary characters could be real people.

  14. @Ed — thanks! Pratchett + West Wing actually fits the book really well.

    And then with the caveat to everyone that I’m very bad at pitching…

    @Brenna — I actually really liked your long pitch; got me to laugh. I may also love cheese. The “with cheese” part at the end of the longer pitch made me pause because Pushing Daisies already has a great deal of cheese in it, but that might just be me.

    @Devin — I don’t think you need to include the technology level. While I do love that Mistborn has an 1800’s kind of feel, I’ve never seen anyone pitch it for that reason. The short pitch feels kind of generic — girl fighting war. If the promise is interesting, maybe phrasing it in term of a girl who’s made such-and-such a promise who’ll do anything to keep it, including warring on her people and gods, might work better?

    @Kim — Alice in Wonderland and Percy Jackson actually left me a bit confused. They’re both adventure fantasy, so I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get from it until I read the longer pitch. I liked the longer pitch, though maybe the time spent on the magical-item-transport could be used for something else. The former servant of Morpheus might be an interesting place to expand (I thought it was the most interesting part, at least). Is he a love interest? Does the MC know why he’s a “former” servant or is she trying to figure it out? Does she know why he’s helping her? If there are unclear motives that hint at a larger plot, maybe that could be used to good effect.

  15. I could have used this podcast a few months ago. I’ve been muddling along with my pitches and doing rather poorly at it, like most other new authors. I think I got the longer pitch down now but the shorter ones still don’t seem to hit the right chord.

    Short: A fantasy comedy romance about a starving orphan who becomes a fairy princess and has to deal with all of the problems that come with it.

    Elevator: Skye, a streetwise orphan, stumbles into the presence of a faerie queen and finds herself changed from pauper to magical faerie princess with all of the problems that go with it. Skye learns that being a faerie ambassador might not be worth the lifetime of free meals promised in the pact. Facing dragons, murderous princes, and too many boyfriends might be more than she can handle.

    Long: Skye Natala only wanted to see the world and avoid starvation while doing it. As a streetwise orphan, she’s seen her share of hardships. When she stumbles into the presence of a faerie queen she finds herself thrown suddenly from being an unknown pauper to a magical faerie princess with all of the problems that go with it. Skye soon learns that being an ambassador for a race of magical creatures may not be worth the lifetime of free meals she was promised when she made the blood pact.

    She struggles through representing the newest kingdom on the continent with little more than a pair of indifferent faeries and a bookworm for guidance. She finds herself forced to ask a dragon for directions while convincing it not to eat her horse, faces a prince whose sole purpose in life seems to be the eradication of magical creatures like her, and discovers that having a boyfriend in every town might not be such a good idea when one of them is also her bodyguard.

  16. @MkHutchins and Kim Mainard, I find the “light hearted political fantasy” line to be good but I’m probably coming from a different angle than Kim. Politics by its nature seems wide open to comedic and satirical attack. I find the premise interesting enough that I would want to read the book or hear more.

  17. @Kim

    Shorter version:

    Ariana is transported from modern Paris into the dream world of the ancient Greek gods. With help from a former servant of Morpheus, she fights to stop a wrathful god from turning the real world into a living nightmare.

  18. @Talmage

    I don’t have a full answer, but I fear your elevator one needs to lose a sentence. I think “elevator” means the time between floors. Maybe this:

    A comedic fairytale where a streetwise orphan is changed into a magical faerie princess. Upside: a lifetime of free meals. Downside: facing dragons, murderous princes, and too many boyfriends. Hijinks ensue.

  19. Darn, I finally caught up on Writing Excuses. I have no more excuses (so I’d better go write).

    This was a useful episode for me, because I’m going to a con in February, and if I’m lucky, maybe I can get over my she nature long enough to get to make a pitch.

  20. As much as I’d like to think about the pitch(es), I need to finish up a book first, as Dan even pointed out in the cast. Still, thinking about it now might help distill what I need to convey through the story and keep myself focused. After listening to the cast, I think waiting until after I’m done might conversely be almost too late, though, so I think I’ll use it when I’m storybuilding as a good summary.

    That said, here’s what I’d go with today:
    Magic abruptly appears and humanity must learn to adapt to it or be destroyed in a post-apocalyptic story in a fantasy setting.

  21. I work in public relations so not all of this may directly apply to the publishing world, but a few more tips that my professional life has taught me about pitching:

    1. Unless it doesn’t need it (as in Jane Austen with magic), an elevator pitch is usually better when it contains an active verb. It doesn’t have to be a flashy verb, but it should be an active one.

    2. For the 3-4 paragraph pitch, it’s good to have one killer, specific detail that you can easily access and concretely explain. Or two. Possibly three. That could be the ending (as was mentioned in the podcast e.g. the ending of The Sixth Sense) or a specific action that takes place or an interesting aspect to the world building or the characters or the form of the story, etc.

    3. This was also alluded to, but I will make it more explicit: the key is not just the pitch, but also to find the right audience at the right time. Some of that is luck, but much of that is also research and social skills. And it’s definitely persistance (but persistence that includes those social skills).

    4. Both in the three-four paragraph pitch as well as any longer conversation, you should generally avoid language that pumps up your story but is essentially empty — words like “unique”, “groundbreaking”, “poetic”, “thrilling”, “action-packed”, etc. Let the enthusiasm show through how you describe what it’s actually about. The agent/editor can decide for him or herself if it’s unique, groundbreaking or thrilling.

  22. I am in the process of writing my first fantasy story and my elevator-pitch would be: “Sweet old man thinks that he must perform ritual human sacrifices to save the world from annihilation.”

    Of course it’s about a whole lot more than that as well.

  23. @Ed

    Lol, you’re right, it does sound a little like Shadowrun, doesn’t it? Maybe have to tweak it a bit. Of course, that’s assuming anyone under the age of 30 even knows what that is :)

  24. Definitely harder than it sounds. As alluded to in the cast, how do you sell it in the short and long pitches without just re-iterating the entire plot? Obviously something I’m going to have to practice at. And when it comes to my own books, I’m not sure if knowing them so intimately will make it harder or easier.

    Here’s my poor first try from the prompt:

  25. In her How to Think Sideways writing course, Holly Lisle describes the elevator pitch as “The Sentence.” Her formula is “Protagonist with a need + Antagonist with a need + Setting + Twist.” She does a very good job of showing how to do this.

    I really recommend her course. It’s at http://www.howtothinksideways.com.

  26. @Kim

    You’re welcome. If you want to improve your conciseness skills, see and reproduce what I did to your text in order to come up with mine.

  27. Is it weird that part of me wants to finish my book, just so I can try pitching and looking for an agents and all that stuff? I know it’s going to be painful and heartbreaking, and it’s going to take a long time before I’m even remotely good at it, but I’m actually looking forward to it. I think it might be that this would be the first distinct milestone towards becoming a professional writer since “Start writing.”

  28. Another great podcast guys! :)

    Pitching is one of those skills that can be carefully honed by getting a bunch of people together with one experienced pitcher and then have everyone in the room pitch and utterly humiliate themselves in the process by doing it badly and get chastised by said experienced pitcher. Or at least that’s what we did at EWU.

    I can personally attest to the advice the WE guys and gal gave that telling what the story is about as opposed to what happens in the story is the best way to go. You can only sit through so many 15min pitches that go, “This happens, then this, then this then this….” before you start shouting at people to get to the point.

    I do have one question though: How do you pitch a story that on paper is a fairly formulaic and generic sounding story but is original in its execution?

    How do you pitch something that might be too niche/obscure like Dungeon Crawl Fantasy? The book is not a novelized D&D Adventure, but does draw on the tropes/traditions/elements of the same. How you pitch Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms to anyone other than TSR?

  29. Random Off-Topic:

    Finally got around to reading Schlock Mercenary a few minutes ago (bought all the books a few months back) and want to petition that we rename “Chekhov’s Gun” to “Schlock’s Gun.”

  30. Great podcast as usual, everyone. But the concept of pitches got me wondering about titles, and a search through the archives didn’t reveal any podcasts on the subject (forgive me if I’m just remembering wrong). I’d love to hear your thoughts on choosing name for your project.

  31. It’s a book about a mercenary girl, who joins another mercenary group to kill one of it’s members and ends up in a quest to save the world.

    That’s what I’d pitch right now. But I’m discovery writting so it will turn into a nun killing people to end the world most likely.

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