More New Year’s Helpful Hints – Does Your Pitch Make Sense?

Ok, so apparently I sounded much more acerbic in my previous post than I’d meant. I blame champagne poisoning. Despite my unintended brittle tone, I do hope the message got through. Today, I endeavor to sound like the warm, fuzzy, kind-hearted soul that I really am. No, really…ask Mom, she’ll vouch for me.

Today’s giftie is about helping your pitch make sense. Wha’? you ask? Yes, I realize I already did that in the previous post, but I want to dig deeper because there is a common problem in pitches that usually end up in a rejection. And your New Year’s Resolution is to avoid rejection by cranking out a brilliant pitch, right?

It’s logical to reject because a project doesn’t fit our lineup, but nothing is sadder than a rejection due to a poorly organized pitch. So here are some of the common problems I see that usually result in rejection:

Title Disparity

Titles are so important. Aside from your cover art, they’re the calling card to your book, so they should make sense. Sure, we’ve all seen plenty books with clever titles that capture the imagination and whet the appetite. But what do they impart? Fiction can get away with that to some degree, but nonfiction really needs to have a solid title that means something. If your title is elusive, then you should consider a subtitle. On its own, Anomaly means all kinds of things – none which give the reader insight to Chris Baughman’s content – which is utterly fascinating. However, you add a subtitle – One Detective’s Quest For Justice – and the clouds part and the angles sing.

So let’s say your title is Yes! We Are The Ladies Who Lunch! My pea-sized brain will manufacture some measure of expectation this is a story that surrounds ladies who lunch – a women’s story. But if your pitch talks about a man who robs liquor stores, I’m gonna do some serious blinking. A title misfire won’t result in a rejection, to be sure, but it certainly will strike me as odd because I’ll wonder if you simply thought up a clever title, or whether you focused on the wrong thing in your pitch.

Focusing On the Wrong Things

What do I mean by that? It’s where the author details the foundation of the book and not the guts:

Foundation: Shortly after the Twin Towers fell, the Grapper family to moves to Switzerland to take up sheep farming. Told from the perspective of Leslie, a frightened thirteen-year-old with a vivid imagination, her wild adventures in the countryside quickly unravel her family life because she’s unable to speak the language and is unfamiliar with the new culture.

Guts: Wrought with homesickness, Leslie finds salvation through a secret video, unexpected friendship, spying on a suspicious farmer, and a near-fanatical dedication to daydreaming for her survival.

The author spent too much time on the foundation and only one sentence on the guts of the story. The result is that I don’t have enough to decide whether this story will be of interest. What secret video? What friendship? What suspicious farmer? Why is she worried about her survival? I’m not sucked into the story because she offered zero details. And this will result in a rejection. Boo.

Theme Misfire

Normally a query letter opens up with a quick tag line – a one sentence hit of the story’s theme. It’s a nice set-up. However, I will expect the pitch to mirror your tag line. Examples of theme misfire:

  • Tag line: about unwitting immigrants and fundamentalist Christians / Pitch: loneliness of a young boy
  • Tag line: Based on a family who had a major hand in the exodus of the Vietnamese refugees in 1975. Pitch: Character’s desire to be a chef and being dragged into overseeing her father’s dynasty.

If your tag line and pitch is vastly different, I have no choice but wonder which it is – your tag line or your pitch. It’s confusing, which normally results in a rejection because I don’t have the time to guess.

Readership

I think a lot of authors would have more success if they gave serious thought about their readership. For whom did you write your book?

It’s easier to answer that with fiction, especially mainstream fiction, but writers should have awareness of their readership. Nonfiction is a whole other can of worms. I see many stories that are so personal or obscure that I can’t figure out the audience. For example, moving to Switzerland as a kid and having some wild adventures may be amusing to your friends and family, but how is this a “gotta have it” for the reading public at large? If you ask yourself this question, you’ll have all sorts of “ah ha” moments that will result in a clearer query letter.

I’m not saying you should tell me, “this will appeal to XYZ audience.” I’d much rather that you show me; tailor your pitch so that I instantly see your audience. If you can’t figure out your readership, then you might ask yourself whether you have a viable book. You can be sure I’ll be wondering.

Is there a message?

At the root of nearly all books – fiction and nonfiction – is the idea of entertainment and a message. The message may be apparent or more obscure – Eat, Pray, Love vs. anything written by Vince Flynn. We all pick up different messages with any given book. I’ve had feedback on my novel that offered impressions that I’d never even thought of while writing it. I’m sure you published authors have had the same experiences.

I’m not saying that you should bang me over the head with your message in your pitch by saying, “the message of this book is ABC…” because that’s telling. I’d rather you showed me because what you’re really doing is discussing the poignancy of your story, which I feel goes hand in hand.

Will the lack of showing a message result in rejection? Hard to say. Just this morning I rejected a query because the story didn’t hit the right high notes for me. The killing blow was the fact that it also offered no message. I need that element in our books. My point with this is that editors have differing litmus tests that result in interest, so it’s a good idea to have a solid understand of those you query. That’s why it’s so vital to look at the submission guidelines – editors normally are quite clear about what they’re looking for.

Looking for the message: Think about the books you’re drawn to and see if you can pull out some sort of message from them. Is it necessary that you detail your book’s message in your pitch? No. Always remember that pitches come in all flavors, and many I loved broke virtually all the rules. Take a look at this rule breaker on Query Shark’s blog. What it lacks in technical prowess it makes up for in whetting the appetite for all the reasons Janet Reid explains.

The ultimate idea is to make your pitch memorable to the point where we ask for pages. If you take some of these pointers into consideration, maybe you’ll experience an uptick in “please send me pages.” And this is what puts the tequila in the beagle’s margaritas.

3 Responses to More New Year’s Helpful Hints – Does Your Pitch Make Sense?

  1. Dan Holloway says:

    Well I’ve gotta see the kind of trigonometric hymn book that makes tha angles sing!!

    The one of the above that makes me scratch my head as a writer is the message – is this because of the genres you tend to take on or a general “rule”? Only everything I’ve ever enjoyed (OK, not *everything*) hasn’t had a message. A message would make me stop reading on the spot. Is what you mean something closer to what I guess I’d think of as the central conflict or question at the heart of the MC’s story.

    To use my book, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, as an e.g. simply because I can explain it OK, it’s about an 18 year-old girl with an English mother but growing up as an only child with her single parent father in Hungary, on the vineyard that’s been in the family 300 years. She dreams of being an artist, and eventually following her mother westward, wins a place at art school in Budapest, and is forging a nascent career when her father is diagnosed with terminal heart disease, his dying wish for her to take over the family business, blah blah blah. There’s a conflict, choices she has to make as she’s pulled in different directions. But there’s no message in the choice she makes.

    Hmm, darn you. When the story ends with her mother back in Hungary, and the voice of her dead father finally gone from her head, and our plucky MC is standing on the Szechenyi Bridge over the Danube, her future absolutely undecided, but absolutely hers to make. That is a message. And damned if all those books I was thinking of – Murakami with his life’s so full of chance; Banana Yoshimoto with her everything’s disconnected – have a message too.

    Thanks. Feels like one of those breakthrough thingies

  2. Heh, see? I’m like those finger-in-the-eye types who loves to churn the waters to make writers think in a different direction.

    I’m not saying it’s necessary to expose a particular message, but your pitch may reveal one that piques an editor’s interest because it shows the deeper elements of the story.

    I’m simply offering some mechanics that may give you a better stand-out query.

  3. NinjaFingers says:

    The entertaining thing is when a reader tells you they appreciated the message in a story you wrote…

    …and you never put it in there ;).

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