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Thursday, April 11, 2019

 

First, You Need a BIG Black Snake (Or How To Grab the Attention of Agents, Editors, and Readers)

The other day, the black snake returned to my deck. It is a seriously BIG black snake and so I posted the pic on social media and immediately, the comments started. There is something about a BIG black snake that really gets people’s attention and oddly, I thought about my latest pitch. And here’s what I thought: I need a BIG black snake.

Not literally, just metaphorically. In other words, would my pitch immediately convince an agent to read my first ten pages? And assuming my story delivered, would my agent’s pitch (which started with my pitch) be compelling enough to make an editor want to read it? And then the editor had to sell my story to an entire publishing company, who in turn had to sell the pitch to thousands of readers.

It’s pretty overwhelming, when you think about all that your pitch has to do. So it behooves us all to get the equivalent of a BIG black snake. But what makes a good pitch? I know you’re thinking it’s a good story, but it’s not that simple. Plenty of writers can produce wonderful stories. But there are plenty of wonderful stories gathering dust because the writer couldn’t pitch the story well enough to grab the right person’s attention. So a few ideas about good pitches:

First, know what your story is about. I know. It’s ridiculous. Who doesn’t know what their story is about? But if you only have thirty seconds to take everything you know about your story and then pitch your book to editors and agents, could you do it? Could you quickly get to the essence of it all, capturing the voice, the hook or premise, the tone, the characters?

Yeah. Not so easy to get all that in a few sentences. But if you know what your story is about, that’s a starting point, and there are lots of ways to begin. I like Gary Provost’s sentence about story structure which you can read about here; it’s a good checklist. But just about any book on the subject of writing can help you here. (Or conversely, help you find where or what is missing in your story!) And once you have conquered that one-page summary, you’re ready to move on to the pitch phase.

Read lots of pitches! Now, I realize you don’t have access to all the perfect pitches that have been written out there. Though sometimes, an author might share the pitch that got her the agent of her dreams. Or an editor might share a pitch that made her publishing house buy a book at auction. But that’s a painstaking search mission and there’s an easier way to find great pitches: go to the bookstore or your local library.

Head directly to that shelf where all the best-sellers are waiting and turn to the back cover. There you will find, in a short paragraph or two, exactly what’s inside that book. I don’t care if it’s a memoir or a thriller, a romance or a how-to, that back cover is golden. And often, the back cover is remarkably close to what the writer used as the first pitch. You can even do a little comparison and read the summary inside the book cover; that’s how you’ll see what was left off the back cover. And when you understand the difference, it’s time to move on to writing a pitch.

Practice writing pitches. You can concentrate on writing your own pitch, but sometimes, we’re so invested in what we’ve written that we find it difficult to cut. Practice distilling other people’s books into pitches and get used to the process. Or practice with movies. It doesn’t matter as long as you know the story well. And once you’ve honed your skills, then write your own pitch.

It’s just a few lines, but those few lines can make the difference between ho-hum and humdinger. So spend a little time on the whole pitch thing and when it’s good and ready—when you’ve got your BIG black snake--go grab someone’s attention!

~Cathy C. Hall



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6 Comments:

Blogger Renee Roberson said...

Thanks for the nudge and encouragement, Cathy. I think this season has been really hard for me because every single agent wants something different. Query letter with a one-paragraph pitch. Or a query letter that's the only pitch. Or a query letter with a one-page synopsis pitch. All those different versions can get a little confusing and make a writer a little . . . grumpy. What I've been working on is writing a pitch for my second YA novel (which is in revision) BEFORE I have the draft completed. It's a way to nail down my main points and keep my focus on track. Reverse psychology, but I think it's working.

And I think you need a name for that big old guy. Willie? Herman? Percy?

7:24 AM  
Blogger Cathy C. Hall said...

Oh, I feel your pain, Renee--everyone has their own special ask and it's SO time-consuming (if you do it right!) to send to each agent. But I love that you're working on the pitch while revising. I've done that and yep, it's really helpful.

And P.S. There was a Willie Doc somewhere in the family. That snake has WD written all over him (or her?) :-)

12:00 PM  
Blogger Margo Dill said...

That big black snake is something! But I love the analogy to our work. I have heard the advice to write your pitch before writing your first draft even, although I usually do it before revising, since I'm not an outliner, but the novel comes to me while I'm writing the first draft. Whenever I have written a pitch, it always makes my revising better. Great post by the way. So true, that we need something to catch the attention of not just the gatekeepers but the readers, too.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--Only you could come up with a wonderful post, given a snake sighting.

Yes, I need a big snake. An anaconda would be nice... ;)

2:10 PM  
Blogger Linda O'Connell said...

Your writing has to slither into the reader's psyche and wrap itself around the agent...just like you did here with the shocking reality, it takes a snake! Seriously, great post!

5:14 AM  
Blogger Lisa Ricard Claro said...

Oh, the woes of agent hunting . . . the query letter, the synopsis, the one sentence pitch! Oh, my! And "oh sigh!" It's exhausting, to say the least. And many agents now want submissions via online forms such as Submittable which allows them to torture us even MORE with fields that go beyond the query letter, synopsis, and a few sample pages. Now simple query submissions may include requests for things like "other titles similar to yours" and "what makes your novel different/special" and "who is your target audience?" On the one hand, an author who can easily fill in these fields is one who has a clear sense of marketing for his/her book; but on the other hand, as agent Janet Reid has often commented, most authors have NO CLUE about any of those things, often querying a novel under the wrong genre right from the get-go. BUT, having a a clear pitch in mind does help clarify a story and where it is going. Knowing key things about our own stories, such as theme, premise, and plot---which are not interchangeable with each other---does make the pitch process easier to accomplish. But it does take some wordsmithing to really nail it. Wordsmithing which is sort of like . . . yeah, a big black snake. Don't you ever get tired of being right?

8:41 AM  

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