What should your pitch contain?
Here’s some of what I look/listen for:
1) the story! I’m plot-driven as an editor. When I hear or read a synopsis (or a full manuscript), I’m building a plot-house in my mind. And I know where the floors aren’t even or there’s a missing wall or window–where the house needs repairs or re-design. For me, if story’s not strong or doesn’t seem to hang together, I’m not going to be interested in the book.
However, I don’t need a huge amount of detail at pitch stage, just enough to let me know that your novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
That last bit’s important because some writers don’t want to reveal the end. They leave it out of a written synopsis or don’t include it in a verbal pitch. I suspect this is because there’s advice floating around that says if you don’t include the end, editors and agents will be curious enough to ask you for it. That is wrong. We need to see that there’s an end because we want to know that you can end the book. Some people can’t–they’re all set up, no pay off.
2) the main characters. Note the plural here: I am assuming there is more than one important character in your book. If there isn’t you may not have a novel yet. I want to know about the villain(s), too, not just the good guys.
If you only tell me about male characters, I’m going to ask if your book has any women in it. If you only tell me about female characters, I’m going to ask if there are any men in the book.
It’s a good idea to tell me about diversity in your cast as well. You don’t need to justify diversity, btw, and don’t let anyone convince you that you should. A character doesn’t a “reason” to be a POC, to have a disability, to be LGBTQ, to not be Christian, to not be American. They just are who and what they are.
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve said, “I’m going to ask” more than once. That’s because a pitch session is a conversation as much as it is a presentation. Probably more.
Getting to the heart of your project within the allotted time is important. I frequently interrupt a writer’s prepared presentation to try to dig deeper into the material, both because I’m aware that time is passing (I usually have a timer running on my phone) and because writers often get stuck during a pitch and I’m trying to move them along.
I might ask:
- What inspired you to write this book?
- What interests you about this time period? This part of the world?
- How did you settle on this myth or legend or monster for your story?
- Why has your main character decided to make this major change in their life? What do they want to achieve?
- Have you written other books–published or not?
- Are you published at novel-length? (self-published counts)
I might say:
- Tell me about the research you’ve done on: a plot point, a character’s background, a culture you explore in the book, the food people eat, the science behind your thriller elements, the religion displayed by your main character.
- Tell me about the relationship between your two main characters: how long have they known each other?
- Tell me about other publishing credentials you have or awards you’ve won, and forgive me for not knowing–I just can’t keep up!
I may ask you the same question more than once, or I may ask you for information you already gave me. This isn’t because I’m not listening; it’s because I focus on different things at different points in our conversation.
I’m going to try to engage you, to draw you out. This is both to give me a better sense of your book and to give me a better sense of you. If I take you on, it’s likely that we’re going to work together for at least two years (I’m talking about traditional publishing here, and there are a lot of steps between manuscript and books-on-the-shelf). During the pitch, I am looking for indications that we’ll work well together, that you understand that traditional publishing is a business.
It’s not possible for you to predict exactly what I’m going to ask, so don’t make yourself crazy trying to. One of the reasons your book should be finished is that it’s more likely that you’ll be able to answer my out-of-left-field questions if you know the whole story yourself.