Scoring in the Elevator:

All I know about writing a good two sentence pitch

In order to sell a novel you need three different-sized pitches: a one or two page synopsis, a one paragraph pitch, and a two sentence pitch, which you could recite if you managed to trap an agent or editor in an elevator with you. They actually call these two sentences an “elevator pitch,” or sometime a “logline pitch,” a term that comes from screenwriting.

But whatever you call it, summarizing your 300+ page novel in two sentences is a tall order. It’s something I’m not good at myself, but I sometimes think advice from someone who struggles with the process can be more useful than advice from someone to whom it comes naturally—and a natural pitcher I’m not!

The only real rule for a two sentence pitch is to “Wow!” your audience. For me, at least, knowing this rule is no help whatsoever. I need to know how to wow. Just remember, there are no hard and fast rules here—only pirate-style guidelines.

Guideline 1: The first part of the pitch sets up the general situation. A homesteader sends for a mail order bride, (I heard this used as pitch example somewhere—I’ve no idea whose pitch it is, and I apologize for stealing it. But it’s such a good example.) The second part introduces a factor that makes this book different from all the other books like it. Or just a factor that sounds interesting, that zings you. , concealing the fact that he’s been deaf from birth.

You’ll note this isn’t two sentences, it’s a one sentence pitch in two parts. (Hence guidelines instead of rules.) But a lot of the better short pitches I’ve heard consist of a one-two punch—and the second punch is the harder. The fact that the homesteader in this romance has been deaf from birth, and that he conceals it when he sends for his bride, is the thing that makes this book different from all the other mail-order-bride romances. And it makes the central conflict in the story clear.

Guideline 2: You can’t put more into this pitch than the general set up and one other point of interest.

Boy who’s been raised living under the stairs by abusive relatives finds out that he’s a wizard, and goes to a magical school, and ends up fighting the evil wizard who killed his parents, even though the evil wizard was supposed to be dead.

This is only one sentence, but it’s still a terrible pitch. It can, of course, be fined down.

Harry discovers that he has magical powers when he’s invited to attend a school for wizards, but he ends up fighting the evil wizard who killed his parents.

OK, the first sentence almost works for me, but the last one still doesn’t have enough zing. (I believe I mentioned that I struggle with this.) The attribute that makes the first part of the sentence better, and is still working against the last part, brings me to…

Guideline 3: Specific is better than vague. Ends up fighting against the wizard is too vague. Who killed his parents actually works pretty well.

So after brainstorming it with a friend, I ended up with:

Harry discovers that he has magical powers when he’s invited to attend Hogwarts school for wizards, but the evil wizard who killed his parents is hiding at Hogwarts, waiting to finish the job.

Let me run you through another set of pitches that illustrate specific-is-better:

Girl falls for sexy vampire—will he be able to refrain from killing her?

Even though this is the core of Twilight, it’s a terrible pitch. It sounds exactly like every other vampire romance on the market.

Girl goes to live in a small Oregon town, and falls for a sexy loner who she eventually discovers is a vampire.

This is a little better, because the beginning is more specific, but it’s still no different from every other vampire romance.

Girl falls for a sexy vampire—but the boy who falls for her is part of a werewolf tribe committed to defeating the vampires.

It’s not great, but it does manage to bring in an element that doesn’t exist in every other story in this genre, and it also brings in the promise of conflict.

Guideline 4: Make sure your pitch reveals some major conflict in the story.

Here’s a set of pitches for a duet I have coming out from Houghton Mifflin sometime in the future. And this really was the best pitch I could come up with at the time.

Two teens are recruited by a shapeshifter to stop a looming ecological catastrophe.

My agent hated this—and she was right, it’s utterly boring—so she changed it to:

Two teens are recruited by a shapeshifter to change the course of humanity.

It sounds more interesting, but it’s still way too vague. Change the course of humanity? What does that mean? On the other hand I couldn’t think of anything better, so we went with it.

A few months ago, a group of writers gathered at an SCBWI schmooze and we went around the circle and workshopped each other’s logline pitches for an upcoming writer’s conference—and the results were amazing. All but one person (who must have been one of those natural pitchers I talked about earlier) came in with the usual vague, not very interesting pitch. But as 16 writers kicked those pitches around they got better and better till we all left with sharp pitches that really worked—including my pitch which became:

Two teens, recruited by a shapeshifter to stop a bio-plague, find themselves in the middle of a shapeshifter war.

Guideline 5: Don’t try to do this all by yourself! Odds are you’re too close to your story to know what you can leave out, and to isolate the right zing factor for the second punch. To know what’s really interesting about your character’s situation, and which conflict will make people sit up and take notice. Get together a large group of fellow writers and work on each other’s pitches—I can’t guarantee you’ll be pleased with the result, but your chances are a lot better if you let more brains into the process. And people who haven’t read your story, and don’t know it intimately, can often give you better feedback than people who do.

That’s pretty much the sum of my knowledge—now all you need is the right elevator.

Spring 2009

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