Fri 7 May 2010
I recently judged a contest for the blog at QueryTracker.net, a great site for writers at the query stage looking for more information about potential agents (and where my client Cole Gibsen first learned about me). I agreed to help out and, seeking something that would be both 1) easy on me and 2) beneficial to writers, I decided to limit the entries to pitches of 25 words or less. To see the winners and more details about the contest, head HERE.
I can already hear many of you groaning. If boiling down a story into two or three paragraphs for a query is like stubbing your toe, then fitting an entire novel into 25 words is like getting a 50 ton anvil dropped on your cat. You know, if you really like your cat. Despite the painful nature (sorry, Kitty!) of the contest for some, doing this sort of exercise is certainly worthwhile.
The 25-word pitch (sometimes the “elevator pitch,” sometimes the “mom pitch,” sometimes the “you only have 15 seconds before your audience loses interest pitch”) is a skill writers should have in their toolbox no matter what stage of their career in which they find themselves. Even juggernauts of literature still get asked, “Oh, so what’s your new project about?” And while we’re more likely to nod for 15 minutes as Ernest Hemingway explains the ins and outs of his latest nautical story, hearing “It’s about an old Cuban fisherman trying to catch a marlin. But, you know, it’s about life, maaaaan” is more useful. Confusing, since Hemingway is 1) dead and 2) not a hippy, but useful nonetheless.
As an agent, it’s super helpful to have these sorts of pitches ready. I never know when lunch or drinks with an editor will turn into an opportunity to talk about a project I represent. It’s not just with editors, either; I’ve had plenty of conversations where someone wants to know what the heck it is I do and what sort of books I’ve sold. To pull out a succinct, quick description makes things loads easier and lets us get back to our game of Jenga.
So how do you write these things, anyway? There’s no perfect formula, but I like to always start with who the story is about, what challenges the protagonist faces, and some standout detail that makes it feel unique. For example, when pitching my client Cole Gibsen’s book KATANA, my 25 word pitch was: “It’s KILL BILL meets BUFFY, about a teen girl who discovers she’s a reincarnated samurai, but would rather be breaking hearts than breaking bones.” Who is it about? A teen girl. What challenges does she face? She’s learned she might be a samurai warrior, for the love of Pete! What makes it feel unique? All of it, really, but most notably for me, the notion of a kick ass teen who may or may not use swords. Swords, people! This pitch doesn’t get into many of the elements that make this project so fun and awesome, but it’s enough to make people (hopefully) say, “Huh, that’s interesting!”
Let’s move to an example many of you will be familiar with. As I’ve said on here before, I’m a big Roald Dahl fan. As a third grader, I declared to anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) that CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY was the best book ever written. I’ve since revised this opinion, but if I was looking to tell a someone about the story, I may start with something like this:
- Eccentric candy maker Willy Wonka offers five lucky children the exclusive chance to tour his amazing chocolate factory. All they have to do is find one of five Golden Tickets hidden within Wonka Chocolate Bars. When Charlie Bucket, a poor boy who loves chocolate more than anything in the world, wins a Golden Ticket, he’ll find that the factory is even more amazing than he could have possibly imagined, and that he, Charlie Bucket, may be the most special thing inside the entire factory.
So that’s 84 words. Not a bad start–this may work for a query– but it’s too long for the mailman to sit through. How can we go shorter? What can be eliminated? The first thing I’d ask is whether the story is about Willy Wonka or about Charlie. Although the title of the Gene Wilder film may say otherwise, the title of the book is CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and though Willy Wonka is an iconic character, Charlie is still our hero here. So I’m tempted to make it more about him.
Here’s another, shorter try:
- A young boy named Charlie Bucket, one of five lucky recipients of a Golden Ticket, wins the chance to tour Willy Wonka’s amazing chocolate factory, and discovers that sometimes a good heart can be worth more than all the candy in the world.
Still not perfect, but it’s shorter. We’re down to 43 words and a somewhat cheesy line to end it, although Willy is still a part of it. What else can we prune? We don’t need Charlie’s last name, we don’t need the exact details about the Golden Ticket, but, for my money, there needs to be more of a hint of just how special this opportunity is. Here’s my final 25-word pitch:
- Everyone wants the secrets of the reclusive Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but only one courageous boy will get them during a wild and hilarious adventure.
Perfect? Nope! But it’s 25 words and hopefully gets across enough of the story’s flavor to be compelling. We have the two main players, a hint of the conflict, and a sense of what sort of story we can expect to read.
Remember when trying these yourselves to include the most information in the least amount of words. Like a solid poem, each word has to count and be absolutely necessary. Use active verbs wherever possible, and be selective with adjectives. In my example, I included “reclusive” and “courageous” because I felt they were both important in illustrating the two characters in the least amount of words.
For fun, see if you can boil down one of your favorite books for children into a concise 25-word pitch and leave them in the comments.