Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part I)

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STATUS: I’m getting a little peeved with Comcast broadband. This is the second day in a row that my internet service has gone down at the office. There is construction going on behind my building. Makes me wonder if a backhoe has dug too deep. Let’s hope not.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TRAIN IN VAIN by The Clash

Tonight is about testing my pitch paragraph hypothesis. I do believe that you can write a very enticing query pitch simply based on the first 20 or 30 pages of your novel. All you need to do is spotlight the main event that triggers the rest of the story.

Now on to an example the most everyone has read (and probably owns the book so they can pick it up and give it a look.) And don’t worry, we’ll be tackling a variety of genres and novels over the next few days.

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone (or for the UK version, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone).

What is the main event that happens within the first 20 or 30 pages of the novel that then launches the reader into everything else that will unfold? Easy. Harry, who has been living in a closet as the unwanted foster son of the Dursleys, gets a letter inviting him to attend Hogwarts where he then discovers he’s the most famous wizard known to the wizarding world because he survived an attack from the dreaded Voldemort.

Pick up the novel and give it a quick skim. All of the above unfolds in those first chapters. Now check out the cover flap (and no, I don’t have access to Rowling’s original query letter so I have no idea how she pitched it). You don’t need that. Writing good cover copy works just as effectively for the pitch.

So a quick flip to the cover flap reveals the following copy:
“Harry Potter has never been star of a Quidditch game, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son Dudley—a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years. But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives announcing that Harry has been chosen to attend Hogwarts, an elite school for the training of wizards and witches…” (front flap, Arthur A. Levine Books)

Now let’s analyze it:

1. It’s five sentences only.

2. The first sentence sets the tone and the mood by highlighting what Harry Potter has not done in this world the author is creating (which is a nice introduction to Rowling’s world building by the way). Same with the second sentence.

3. The third and fourth sentence highlights what he has known—which isn’t that bright a picture (which makes him instantly sympathetic).

4. The last sentence highlights the event (the catalyst if you will) that will launch the story.

We don’t need much else. We are already intrigued. Now maybe you could have added a sentence that hinted at the evil of Voldemort and how Harry is famous for being the only wizard to survive an attack (and that could ratchet up the initial story tension if you want to hint at the danger that is about to unfold). It’s not absolutely necessary though.

The ending is certainly not mentioned.

Remember, a pitch is a teaser paragraph with the sole purpose of getting an editor or an agent to ask for more sample pages because they just have to read on.


25 Responses

  1. K.R.Stewart said:

    What if the story you’re trying to pitch starts off with multiple POV characters, one per chapter, that don’t meet until page 100 or so? (Think Song of Fire and Ice, G.R.R. Martin)

    Do you just pick your favorite character and pitch his/her story? Do you create mini-pitches for each character? Do you ignore each individual character and focus on the world events that tie them all together?

  2. Catja said:

    “Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued by an owl, taken to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The Reason:
    HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!”

    (Back cover, Bloomsbury edition)

    How do the two compare in your opinion? Which is the one you would prefer to receive?

    And what do we do when we haven’t got half the cool events to throw at the reader that Rowlings does?

  3. Tia said:

    After reading this post, I went to the pitch that worked for you, when you requested my manuscript last January. (Not a single other agent has requested anything since then.) As I read, I realized that the query started off doing what you suggest here, but then it launches prematurely into the ending.

    I’ve done some revisions to the manuscript, so the original query no longer makes sense, but at least I have a better idea of what worked for you and what might work again with another agent.

    Thanks again for requesting my full. You have no idea how many times this has encouraged me since then.

  4. D. Robert Pease said:

    You do start this whole conversation by saying the pitch is based on the first 20 or 30 pages of the book. But your example from Harry Potter doesn’t quite stick to that. The first couple of sentences speak to events that happen much later in the book.

    It seems to me that the example doesn’t support your original premise entirely. I think it is a great example, and I appreciate how you break it down, but it is a synopsis of the whole book really, not just the first couple chapters. (without the mention of Voldemort as you said)

  5. Anonymous said:

    Thank you for posting this.

    It simplifies things a bit for me. Another great way at dissecting the query letter.

    I’ll be looking forward to your other examples.

  6. Rebecca Burgess said:

    K.R. Stewart,

    Multiple POV can feel debilitating when writing pitches and cover copy. I received very helpful advice from a very lit savvy lady who said to avoid a plot analysis altogether and take four of five sentences to describe what your book is about. What is the overarching story that ties all these characters together.

    Look at books that have multiple POV for examples. The Corrections is a good one, so is The River Wife. The cover copy on both these books does go into a bit about the individual characters but they start with a unifying event. What is the thing that ties these characters together and what shared crisis is effecting them.

    In The Corrections, the characters are tied by being family and their shared crisis is the father and patriarch who is suffering from Parkinson’s.

    In The River Wife, the women are tied by their relations with one man, their stories transcend time through a family journal. Their shared crisis is a family curse.

    Sorry for the long comment, but I too struggled to “sum up” my own novel with MPOV. Hope this helped.

  7. Amanda said:

    Thanks for the very interesting post! Harry Potter is one of my very favorite books.

    I had one question. I’m a newbie in trying to get books published (although not in writing books because I’ve written twelve!) and I’m a little confused about the difference between a pitch paragraph and a query letter. Is the pitch paragraph a paragraph from inside the query letter or is it something totally different? I’m so confused! Heeelp!!!! LOL

    ^_^

  8. April said:

    I’m so with you on Comcast!

    Thanks for the information. It’s so hard to narrow our book down, but I see what you mean by using the first 20 pages or so.

  9. Nessa said:

    This idea makes sense. If the back cover is meant to get the buying public to buy, than the same concept should apply for agents.

  10. K.R.Stewart said:

    Thanks for your advice Rebecca.

    Now I just need to find a way to describe the unifying event in an epic fantasy novel, without getting too far into the characters, without it sounding like a cliche, generic fantasy novel. >.
    The example author I used, Martin in the first book of Song of Ice and Fire, did the same thing. The problem is, I personally found the back cover blurb of that novel boring and generic for that very reason, because regardless of genre, the thing I always love at the end of the day is the characters, not the plot. Only because he came so highly recommended did I ever bother opening the book after reading the back cover.

    And thats Martin. His books are genius. Not exactly encouraging for me haha.

  11. Mystery Robin said:

    Amanda – the pitch paragraph is the part of the query letter that pitches the book or describes the plot. It’s also called the hook.

    A query letter has an intro (I’m pitching you, oh wonderful agent, because I write just like your wonderful client x) – then goes into the pitch paragraph, then a bio paragraph, typically.

    Hope that helps!

  12. Beth said:

    k.r. stewart said: The problem is, I personally found the back cover blurb of that novel boring and generic for that very reason

    I so agree. That particular back cover blurb (A Game of Thrones) is terrible. It kept me from reading the book for the longest time because it was so generic and vague-sounding. I’m glad I finally tried it. What a riveting series.

    And I’m like you (and GRRM): I’m writing a big fantasy with multiple POV characters. What I did for the pitch finally was to choose just one character–the one whose story is the most unifying thread through the novel (in fact, the title is based on him) and write a five-sentence pitch centered around him. Anything else has to wait for an actual read, or at least a synopsis.

    And it works. Every agent who has seen the pitch has asked for pages.

  13. k said:

    my husband, who works at comcast, sends you his heartfelt apologies and says that if he had any Denver connections, he’d sure try to help!

  14. sunjunkie said:

    This is brilliant. I’ve read countless how-to’s on pitches and query letters and still manage to botch them miserably. This is the best advice I’ve seen on this topic, and your timing couldn’t be any better.

    Thank you!

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  16. Anonymous said:

    @ D. Robert Pease – Hi, I wanted to mention that I believe the early 20/30 pages was in reference only to the events that unfolded within that short span.

    The cover blurb is used as an example of how you may write your pitch, thus not neccessarily referring to only the early part of your book but the entire manuscript, within 5 or so lines.

    So, these are two separate examples.

  17. Anonymous said:

    is this a good blurb
    In the year 2112 the world is very different. Every person on the planet has been sucked into a war that has lasted over 8 years. The west and east fight over prejudice and racism. When Kate a 10 year old first class citizen is torn away from her family and home, she must find her place in a world that wants her dead. When life looks like it can’t get any worse something happens to her that will change her life and the lives of those around her forever.

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