Pitch Workshop

Pitch Workshop

by Kathy Carmichael

First presented at the Clearwater Writers Conference, sponsored by the Clearwater Library System, March 6, 2001

Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009 Kathy Lynch Carmichael. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in print or on the Internet without the prior written approval of Kathy.

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Pitches can be used either for in-person pitches or in written form. If you have an appointment with an editor or agent, you’ll want to prepare what you’re going to say ahead of time. Also, your pitch can be used on your query letter, cover letter, or as the opening for your story synopsis or outline.

Some terms are used interchangeably. Oftentimes, a pitch is also referred to as a logline, theme statement, or story question. Sometimes you’ll see that editors are looking for high concept (which means a pitch that is easily understood, oftentimes this means comparing two movies or two books such as Gone With the Wind meets Rambo).

No matter what you call your pitch, you’ll want to be ready to rattle it off at the drop of a hat! Think of this as a sales pitch—it’s the method by which you can create interest in your product – your book. Your goal in creating a pitch is to make the editor prick up his or her ears enough that they’ll want to read your story.

Purpose of pitch is to convey:

  • type of story
  • setting (place and time) (includes genre or subgenre)
  • who
  • goal
  • conflict
  • what makes it special or unique
  • how it fits with the books they publish
  • showcase your story’s marketing hooks (the things that will make a reader want to pick YOUR book up off the shelf). I can’t say this strongly enough – the reason you want to write the story is often different from the reason a reader will want to read. Your pitch must concentrate on the marketing angle.

You should be prepared to tell how long the book is and more details. You shouldn’t pitch if you’ve never finished a book and generally you should only pitch a completed book.

There are as many methods of pitching a story as there are book genres. Today I’m going to tell you about a few and then show you how to create your own using a simple template. You can use this template to come up with your pitch or you can use a combination of other methods or simply your own method. My motto is KISS: keep it simple stupid – and so I’ll teach you the method I use myself.

One excellent but more complex method appears in Dwight Swain’s book Techniques of the Selling Writer. If you don’t own this book, get it. It is the manual for writing commercial fiction. Consider it your writer’s Bible to be read and reread until you can apply the concepts. In it, his story or pitch template is as follows: Situation, Character, Objective, Opponent, Disaster—page 134. Here’s an example from his book: “Reporting for her very first days work, fresh out of college and the lone Negro teacher in a white high school, Loretta Kloman stands determined to prove her competence. But can she succeed, when Bucko Wilding, the Mississippi-born coach, urges her pupils to walk out on her?”

Another method, one of the most simple, is often used in the screenwriting/Hollywood community and is called high concept. This method is a means of abbreviating your storyline by comparing it to other successful movies or stories. For instance, if you heard “Gone with the Wind meets Star Wars,” you’d have an idea of what the storyline is about.

This is the high concept pitch for my mystery: Janet Evanovich meets Dave Berry.

For a fantasy I’ve written: Scrooge meets Heaven Can Wait

A romantic comedy: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles meets Bringing Up Baby

This, however, isn’t my preferred method because it doesn’t tell enough, for my taste, when it relates to a book as opposed to a movie. What I’m going to present to you today is one of the simplest methods. I call it, “Who, wants what, why & why not?”

This is the local newspaper’s TV guide and here are a few loglines from it, based upon variations or shortened versions of this simple plot pitch.

Here are a few written by Kimberly Llewellyn — let’s see if you can guess what book or movie it relates to:

  • BLANK is a 100,000 word horror novel about a vampire who gives an interview to a journalist as a means to come to terms with his need to survive. (Interview with a Vampire by Ann Rice)
  • BLANK is a 100,000 word mainstream novel about a woman desperate to heal her injured daughter and save her savage horse. She seeks help from a man known to calm wild horses with his whispering voice and healing touch. (The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans)
  • Its theme: The greatest espionage coup in history. It’s story: The chase for a top-secret Russian missile sub. It’s title: (BLANK). Taken right from the back of the cover! (Except you might want to add that it’s a technothriller if you were writing this pitch yourself.) (The Hunt For Red October by Tom Clancy)
  • This story is a 150,000 word horror novel about an evil that began in a laboratory and swept through America. Only a handful of survivors had the courage to take a stand against evil, yet day by day and defeat by defeat, their chances grew even slimmer. (The Stand by Stephen King)
  • BLANK is a 120,000 word historical novel set during the civil war. It’s about a young woman’s ruthless struggle to survive despite the ravages of war, but she loses the one thing she learned she’d loved the most — the only man who was her equal. (Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell)

Now let’s go into more depth on this process.

The first concept is Who, also known as Character. Who is your protagonist or progonists? If you’re writing a romance, then you’ll need to do this for both the hero and the heroine since there are dual protagonists in modern romance novels. If you’re writing a murder mystery with a detective, then the story will relate to him. If you’re writing a story with a group cast, then the group will stand-in as protagonist.

It helps if you can use an adjective or other descriptive word to add umph to your characterization. Here are some examples:

* A dedicated doctor

* A happy teacher

* A blind writer

* A frightened woman

* A talented dancer

* A fiendish drug dealer

* A mad scientist

Next is Wants What – what does he/she want – this is also known as Goal.

At the opening of your books your characters usually want something—even if it’s only to maintain or return to the status quo. Other goals might be to stay alive, to make a fortune, to find a killer, to become a renowned dancer.

So now we have something like this: An airhead septigenarian is desperately trying to stay alive or a talented dancer is obsessively pursuing fame. Nothing too special here so let’s continue.

Why? Why does she want her goal? This is your character’s motivation and helps to make your character come alive.

Some motivations are:

  • Her mother was a famous ballerina and she won’t feel whole until she’s proven herself as well.
  • He is the only one with a potential cure for aids.
  • She is sworn to uphold the law.
  • He is afraid of change.
  • Anything is better than death.
  • Only he knows the location of the lost city of Atlantis.

The last item is Why not? Why can’t she have it? This is also known as conflict.

Some potential conflicts are:

  • Because she suspects the man she loves is the murderer.
  • Because he has contracted the virus himself.
  • Because the remains of Atlantis will reveal the true origins of mankind—and it’s not what you’d think.
  • Because she’s deaf.

Does this sound intriguing? A talented dancer pursues fame in order to live up to her ballerina mother’s image but she can’t hear the music.

A veteran police officer must avoid being killed himself as he pursues a serial murder. He’s been sworn to uphold the law but fears the murderer may be the woman he loves.

Or in the case of this logline in TV guide: A cop has a steamy affair with a woman who may be a killer: Basic Instinct

Or how about this one: A pregnant police chief investigates a botched kidnapping as it evolves into a string of murders: Fargo

Here are examples I’ve written:

  • Catch Me If You Care is a contemporary story of a woman raised by con artists who claims she’s a missing heiress kidnapped as a child and the man who’s certain she’s a fake and is determined to prove it. All the evidence indicates she very well may be the missing heiress but even she isn’t certain it’s not a family con.
  • This one is a book blurb on my first book, Chasing Charlie, that went out to booksellers (not as an editor pitch) and uses a combination of pitch methods. That’s right! You’ll use your pitches later when you’ve sold your book: When an in-a-rut librarian takes a small step toward adventure, it triggers an avalanche of risks and changes in this romantic comedy. Chasing Charlie is populated with charming characters and snappy dialogue, reminiscent of The Runaway Bride.
  • This is one my ten-year-old son is working on and is proof, I think, that anyone can do this: In this take off of Don Quixote, the Dumb Coyote wants to be a superhero like his dad and win the admiration of everyone. Unfortunately, he didn’t inherit any super powers. Determined to become a hero, he does good deeds—the only problem is he always screws up.

Once you have your basic pitch, you’ll want to finesse it by adding setting, important details—even a story question or theme. If you are going to an editor or agent appointment, once you have your pitch like you want it, you can either write it directly on an index card or, if you’re unable to read your own handwriting like me, type it up, cut it out and paste it directly on an index card. In addition to your pitch, you’ll want to come armed with more information about your book—written on other index cards. Editors who are interested in your story may ask specific questions and you’ll want to be ready to answer them.

Now you’re ready to try out the Interactive Pitch Generator.