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January 3, 2012

Pitch Prep: How to Write a Pitch

Baseball pitcher throwing a pitch

This week we’re preparing for the Pitch Your Shorts pitch session coming here January 10th.  Even if you’re not pitching this time, stick around.  Today we have The Ultimate Guide to Pitch Writing.  (Thursday’s post will cover story openings.)

The Ultimate Guide to Pitch Writing

Pitches fall into many categories, from loglines and elevator pitches to queries and pitch sessions.  Essentially, they all perform the job of letting an agent or editor “speed date” through many submissions.

Pitches aren’t about selling a manuscript.  Their sole purpose is to get to the second date—a request.

Basic Pitching Advice

Let’s first start with the basics.  These tips can apply to all of our writing, but are especially important when we have only a sentence or paragraph to make an impression.

  • Be specific: Details can make even the most formulaic story sound interesting.  Avoid cliches by being less vague.
  • Be brief: Whether we’re pitching a short story or a novel, we have to make every word count.  (“bully” vs. “mean kid”)
  • Be clear: Our audience hasn’t read the story.  Convoluted sentences and subtext/allusion don’t work with speed-reading or listening.
  • Be appropriate: The tone of the pitch should match the story and genre (comedies should have amusing pitches, etc.).
  • Be narrow: Focus only on the main characters and the core conflict of the plot.  This tip goes double for any pitch shorter than two paragraphs.
  • Be visual: Instead of character names, create a picture with adjective noun combinations (tax-evading fireman, vegetarian vampire, etc.).
  • Be active: Use active verbs to describe the plot conflict (“struggles” is better than “decides,” etc.).  Themes and character arcs aren’t a story.

Core Elements of a Pitch

Stories have characters, goals, motivations, and conflicts.  We see the same elements in pitches.  All pitches, no matter their format, give us an idea about:

  • the protagonist (character),
  • the antagonist (person or situation to overcome) (goal),
  • what’s at stake (motivation),
  • and the obstacle (conflict).

In addition to making all that clear, pitches should also:

  • focus on what changes (not what happens),
  • show the story world (genre, romance potential, etc.),
  • include a hook or unique element,
  • and show emotional appeal (the “why should we care” factor).

Easy-peasy, right?  *smile*

Methods for Writing a Pitch

There is no “perfect” pitch, so rather than trying to come up with something brilliant (that I can’t duplicate with my own stories to save my life), I’ll touch on the various pitch-building methods out there.  Some stories might lend themselves to certain approaches more than others.

(Click on the links following some of the methods for more information about how to put a pitch together using that approach.)

  • Focus on the Stakes:

Complete this formula: An ADJECTIVE NOUN (protagonist) must ACTIVE VERB the ANTAGONIST before  BAD THING HAPPENS (which would prevent the protagonist from reaching his/her goal).

  • Focus on the Goal:

Complete this formula: An ADJECTIVE NOUN (protagonist) wants GOAL WITH ACTIVE VERB because MOTIVATION (why the protagonist wants it), but he/she must first OBSTACLE/ANTAGONIST WITH ACTIVE VERB and STAKES WITH ACTIVE VERB.

  • Focus on the Conflict:

Complete this formula: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have to overcome OBSTACLE to GOAL. (via Nathan Bransford)

  • Focus on the Obstacles:

Identify the protagonist and what they want and why.  Describe what keeps him/her from getting it.  Think along these lines: SOMEBODY wants SOMETHING and has a HARD TIME GETTING IT. (via Jane Friedman)

  • Focus on the Twist:

Identify what’s unique about the protagonist and what connects that to the core conflict and the inciting incident or first turning point.  That plot point is where the story changes to put the protagonist in a bind and is often a “gotcha.” (via Janice Hardy here and here)

  • Focus on the Choice:

Identify the protagonist, the choice he/she faces (conflict), and the consequences of that choice (stakes). (via Query Shark)

  • Focus on the Inciting Incident

Identify genre/setting, what makes protagonist unique, inciting incident, core conflict, and consequences of failure.  Unlike the Focus on the Conflict method, this approach often only hints at the goal. (via Stina Lindenblatt)

  • Focus on a Question:

Identify the Character, Situation (why the protagonist has to act), Objective (goal), Opponent (antagonist), Disaster (obstacle).  Sentence one states the character, situation, and objective.  Sentence two is a yes/no question asking if character can overcome the opponent and disaster. (via Camy Tang)

(Note that Camy mentions using the Black Moment for the Disaster, but many sources say to limit pitches to the first third or so of a story, so this might instead be the first turning point in the plot.)

  • Focus on the Emotions:

Brainstorm all the themes, events, climaxes, and words that describe the story, main characters, struggles, and emotions.  Pick the most important and compelling words or phrases and combine in the pitch. (via Nicola Morgan)

  • Focus on the Character:

Identify the protagonist’s flaw, the job or situation that forces him/her to deal with that flaw, the action he/she takes to overcome the flaw, and what he/she wants (and is prevented from getting because of the flaw).  Flaw + Situation + Action + Goal (via Cyndi Faria)

  • Focus on the Theme:

Complete this formula: When a ADJECTIVE NOUN (protagonist) wants GOAL, he/she must learn THEME in order to FINAL OUTCOME.

How to Prepare for the Pitch Your Shorts Pitch Session

Okay, now that I’ve filled your brain with all those options and formulas for pitches, let’s talk about the specifics for Pitch Your Shorts.

My post on January 10th will open the pitch session with the Entangled Publishing editors.  We’ll be leaving a two-sentence pitch and the first 100 words of our stories in the comments of that post.

Did you catch that?  This is a two-sentence pitch.  Not a one-sentence logline or a five-sentence query paragraph.

Some of the formulas above are geared more toward single sentences, so we’ll need to tweak them if that’s the method we use.  Maybe the formula skipped some of the pitch elements listed above and the second sentence can mention those aspects of the story.  Or maybe the two sentences would each focus on a different character (think romantic hero and heroine).

Remember that Entangled is looking for 10-60K stories with strong romantic elements.  That means the pitch should make the romantic potential clear.

Again, some of the above formulas focus more on the antagonist or conflict, so they’ll need to be adjusted if the romance is separate from those elements.  An awesome pitch filled with goals, motivations, and conflict won’t work if there’s no hint of romantic potential.

I went through the pitches selected by the Entangled editors at a previous pitch session and noted the methods used by each “winning” pitch.

  • one used Focus on the Inciting Incident,
  • one used Focus on the Conflict,
  • one used Focus on the Inciting Incident for the first sentence about the hero and Focus on the Character for the second sentence about the heroine,
  • one was closest to  Focus on the Emotions,
  • and one used Focus on the Goal.

Obviously, the authors all tweaked the formulas in some way, but I think it’s valuable to see there’s no “one right way” to write a pitch that will catch an editor’s eye.

Other Resources for Learning about Pitches

For general research, check out Elizabeth S. Craig’s Writer’s Knowledge Base and Pitch University.  Other helpful posts that include pitch examples are:  The Writer’s Alley: The Elevator Pitch and Literary Rambles: Basics of an Elevator Pitch.

Have you written a pitch before?  Did you use a formula or one of the methods above?  Do formulas help you structure a pitch?  Did I miss any pitch-writing methods?  Do you have questions about any of those methods?

(Feel free to list your pitch below to get feedback, and feel free to comment on others’ pitches.  Comments on this post are not part of the pitch session.)

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48 Comments on "Pitch Prep: How to Write a Pitch"

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Susan Sipal

Wow, Jami. This is the most comprehensive and clear post I’ve ever read for working up a pitch. I can’t imagine how much time and effort you put into working all this together. Thank you so much for such a valuable resource!

And now I’ve got to put all your hard work to use to fix up my pitch for your upcoming session.

Melinda Collins

Holy cow! Jami, you have outdone yourself this time. 🙂

This is *the* best pitch guide I’ve read and I love that you’ve put this together for everyone! I finished the first draft of my short story on Sunday, and yesterday, while taking a short break, I thought about the pitch and was soooo close to sending a note to see if were going to do something like this but didn’t ’cause I figured you already had….but I didn’t expect anything like this. Basics, core elements, methods? This is amazing and extremely valuable, Jami!

Now, like Susan, I have to put your post to good use and get my pitch ready (after I get the story edited 😉 ) for next week!

Buffy Armstrong

Jami, I’m pretty sure the only thing I pitch well is a fit. I am going to try my best. Thanks for such a great post!

Diane Holmes

You did an outstanding job here, Jami! One of the things I love the most is that you have multiple strategies. And the second thing? You looked to see what had actually worked in the past. That is genius.

Janet Tait

Fantastic guide to pitching – I love having so many methods all in one place. Thanks so much for a really useful post.

Kerry Meacham

Having the good fortune of working with you on my pitch session last year (thanks again, BTW), I am not at all surprised at this amazing post. As ALWAYS, you’ve done an excellent job, Jami. Bravo. Off to tweet this.

~clink~

Nancy S. Thompson

I’ve bookmarked this post, it’s so darn good! Thanks so much for sharing.

I will be attending my first writer’s conference in October where I hope to deliver verbal pitches directly to attending agents. Having never done this before, I have a few questions:

1. When pitching at a conference, how much time is allowed?

2. While my written query is only 183 words, it focuses on the goal, the stakes, the obstacle, and the twist. Should my verbal pitch do the same?

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Missed your wisdom this last month I’ve been away.
So glad my first stop back to your blog was as interesting and informative as its always been.
This was an invaluable lesson that I plan on sharing.
thanks so much for always making things so clear.
have a fantastic evening!
Tamara

Stina Lindenblatt

Awesome post, Jami. I haven’t had a chance to do an in person pitch yet. I’d be too nervous and would probably puke on the poor, unsuspecting agent. 😀

Jemi Fraser

Wow! This post is solid gold, Jami! Definitely bookmarking it!! 🙂

PW Creighton

Great list of tips and resources Jami. can’t wait to see the results.

Carradee

I’m with everyone else. This is some fantastic work here, Jami.

You should format this stuff and try selling it. *cough*

I’m hoping to use this page to make a pitch worksheet, myself—so I can take one story, “fill in the blanks” and fairly quickly figure out which type of pitch I want to clean up and use.

Jane Bussey

This is such a straight forward and comprehensive guide to pitching. I am going to bookmark it and use it when I get ready for the next conference I attend.

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[…] writers going the traditional route, agents are a must. Jami Gold tells us how to write a good pitch (to entice that agent). Jane Friedman tells us how to know if you have found a good agent. Speaking […]

L'Aussie

Thanks Jami.

I’ve been looking for good articles on the ‘pitch’ and here, it fell into my lap. Thank you so much. Story openings is great too.

HNY

Denise

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[…] best of week award goes to Jami Gold for her in-depth and exceptional post: Pitch Prep: How to Write a Pitch. Jami digs for a nugget and comes back with a mountain of treasure. Absolute must read! Be sure to […]

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[…] midnight Eastern time on Monday, January 16, 2012, post the information about your story, your two-sentence pitch, and the first 100 words of your story in the comments of this post.  Like […]

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[…] We’re continuing to prepare for the January 10-16th Pitch Your Shorts pitch session by tackling the issue of story openings.  (Check out Tuesday’s post for everything there is to know about pitching.) […]

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[…] In case you are unsure on how to pitch a short story you can read my friend Jami Gold’s post Pitch Prep: How to Write A Pitch […]

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[…] How to Write a Pitch – Jami Gold […]

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[…] Gold takes us through the art of pitching with some ahhmazing […]

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[…] Pitch Prep: How to Write a Pitch – Jami Gold […]

E.B.Pike

WOW! Thanks so much for this post, Jami. It is exactly what I need to help me prepare my pitch. I’m so glad I discovered your blog. Your posts are oh-so-helpful for a writer in the trenches. 🙂

Erin

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[…] our quest for a high-concept story, we aim for such a high-level that we miss the hook.  Just as our story pitches have to be specific, our story ideas need specifics too.  Who are the protagonist and the antagonist?  What’s […]

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[…] some great tips on writing your pitch, check out paranormal author Jami Gold’s blog here. Share this:EmailPrintTwitterDiggFacebookStumbleUponRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

Marilyn
Marilyn

This is the best post I’ve found on getting started on a pitch. You show so many varieties, a few I haven’t seen. Thanks so much.

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[…] excellent post on the topic, Miss Snark’s First Victim). I also did some work on my elevator pitch/log line prior to writing my query, which helped me chisel away at my story until I knew exactly what it was […]

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[…] writers going the traditional route, agents are a must. Jami Gold tells us how to write a good pitch (to entice that agent). Jane Friedman tells us how to know if you have found a good agent. Speaking […]

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