Eerie Query Week – Thoughts on Pitch and Voice

People tell you that pitching your novel is one of the most important skills you can have.  I mean, I’ve seen an editor ask someone what their book was about in conversation, and the person not having an immediate response.

Why is it important?  Because you might only have 5 or 10 seconds to get someone’s attention, or 140 characters to peak their interest.  And sometimes, boiling a pitch down to something short and appetizing can do you a lot of good in the long run. You want to give them a morsel – something they can bite down on, not just something the sounds like a bunch of hype.  Ack.  I’m sorry for the food metaphor, because now I’m hungry. 😦

For example, there was a book deal that went up on PM a few weeks ago.  The description of the book (which was no more than a few sentences) was so fascinating that I literally stopped what I was doing, and walked all the way across the house to bother Leah and recite what I’d read.  Only, by that time I’d forgotten what I read, so I had to go alllll the way back upstairs to read it again.

What was the concept?  Essentially, it was post-apocalyptic fairy tales.  Only the description took it a step further, making the heroines (like Cinderella, Snow White) real heroines, essentially saving the world and hunting down their happily ever after.  How cool is that?

But truth be told?  They had me at post-apocalyptic fairy tale.

When I tell people about Witch Eyes, I have my pitch down cold.  It’s a dark, modern Romeo and Juliet with witches.  And a gay romance.  End.  It’s not the tightest or most fascinating description out there, but anyone who hears it knows pretty much exactly what to expect from my novel.

So how does the pitch relate to your query?  Because one helps influence the other.  Your pitch should be close to if not the exact sentence that tells the reader what your book is about.

Pretend you’re in English class: What’s the topic sentence of your book.  Mine would be something along the lines of “A boy, cursed with a powerful yet deadly magical ability, is  caught in the middle of a feud between two rival witch dynasties.”  If you were talking about City of Bones, your topic might be, “A New York city teenager struggles to find her place when she get’s caught up the world of the supernatural underground: a world only she can.”  Figure this out, and boil your book down to it’s basest component.  What’s the struggle?  What’s on the line?  Once you’ve got that, you can jazz it up and paint some sparkles on.

What would the cover copy read? Everyone reads those blurbs on the jacket of a book – the summary that’s simply there to whet your appetite and make you want to buy the book in hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audio.  Imagine you’re writing the cover copy for your novel.  How would it sound?  Now boil that down to a sentence or two that’s going to tell a reader what your book’s about.

Don’t tie yourself down. There’s a difference between comparing yourself to a specific type of work (like Romeo and Juliet) and comparing yourself directly to the market you’re trying to join.  When I make comparisons, I tend to go for movies or TV shows, because those are not directly related to what I’m surrounded by.  If I’m doing a heist book, am I going to get more mileage out of comparing myself to Ocean’s Eleven?  Or Heist Society, by Ally Carter.  Probably the former.  You don’t want someone holding your book up to a book that’s already been done, or comparing your polished draft to a book that’s gone through editorial and is nearly perfect.

And last but not least, look at all the resources around you. There are books everywhere.  If you have a PM subscription, see how they summarize projects that have just sold.  Heck, even watch commercials for movies and see how they introduce their premise.  Read queries, especially if it’s an author whose books are already out.  Look at how their query described the book.  Then look at the book’s description and flap copy.

The goal is to make your concept as relate-able and as interesting as possible.  To get and hold someone’s interest.  And hopefully make them keep thinking about your project for a long time to come.

Remember, if you want me to critique your query (and maybe some of my friends will point out that I helped them out in the comments) then email it to me at scottshouldbewriting at gmail dot com. And if you don’t want me using your real name, let me know in the email.  Any and all queries sent to me will get critiqued and posted on the blog this week, so look out for that.

If you have any questions you want me to answer, or you want me to blog about something specific, leave me a comment!

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9 thoughts on “Eerie Query Week – Thoughts on Pitch and Voice

  1. This is great advice and I’m going to link to it from a post I wrote about pitching your book live, which focused mostly on presentation and less on content. This does a great job of fleshing out writing the content.

    I have a critique partner who’s boiled hers down to “Jane Austen meets the apocalypse.” Sold, right? I’m still in the harried first revision and just starting to figure out how to pitch my book. Hopefully, I can come up with something that catchy!

  2. Hi Scott,
    Thanks for the advice. Love the idea of comparing your mss to movies and television shows instead of other books–makes a lot of sense since you don’t want editors to think of you as a B version of somebody else!

  3. I got a question, why does every time I think about querying, a knot of dread fills my stomach? Honestly, querying terrifies me (with good reason, it’s the thing that can get your story made into a book!)
    On a more serious note, thanks for your info on querying. I’m considering sending my query to you for a critique. Until I stop being wishywashy on this important subject, please keep the posts coming.

  4. Hey Scott! Great series?

    I have a question – not sure its an entire blog post – I’ll leave that to the expert to decide.

    What’s the word on using a question in a query? I’ve read don’t ever put rhetorical questions in a query, but what if your basic, one line concept is a question?

    (And now you know how much I like questions . . . don’t you?)

    • I think it depends on the query. Sometimes, a rhetorical question works for you, and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe try it both ways, one with and one without, and see which one seems better to you.

      I know some agents say they hate rhetorical questions, but honestly, if that’s the best way to explain an element of your novel, then go for it.

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