“So, what do you write?”
As soon as you mention you’re a writer or an author, you can expect to field the question, “What do you write?”
It’s a question you must repeatedly answer throughout your writing career.
Writers who give a compelling answer receive more publishing contracts, accept larger advances, gain more readers, and sell more books. Your answer to the question, “What do you write,” is called a “pitch.”
But a pitch isn’t just for those seeking traditional publishing contracts. Indie authors also benefit from having a compelling pitch for their books. Good pitches lead to great back cover copy and attention-grabbing ads.
Word-of-mouth marketing begins with you. A well-crafted pitch makes it easier for people to talk about your book, and it increases the likelihood that news about your book will spread organically from person to person.
So how do you craft a pitch for your book that creates a word-of-mouth wildfire?
Why You Should Craft Your Pitch Before You Write Your Book
Before we talk about how to craft a compelling pitch, we must discuss when to write your pitch.
Most authors, especially beginning authors, craft their pitch at the wrong time.
As a listener of the Novel Marketing podcast (and reader of our blog), you get the benefit of learning an important lesson the easy way, while most authors have to learn it the hard way.
I recommend writing the pitch for your book before you write your book. In screenwriting, this is called “writing the poster first.” In online sales, it’s called “creating the landing page first.” In business, it’s called “beginning with the end in mind.”
There are some major benefits to crafting your pitch before you write your book.
Love Your Reader
The first book marketing commandment is to Love thy reader as much as you love thy book. Crafting a pitch forces you to think about your reader. The sooner you start thinking about your reader, the better your book will be.
Plan to Succeed
Crafting the pitch first forces you to think through the big picture of the book ahead of time, and that is particularly helpful for authors who write by the seat of their pants. The book’s pitch acts like the puzzle box guiding you as you craft your story.
Test Your Ideas
It can be hard to get feedback on your writing. Reading an entire manuscript is a major time commitment. The kind of people who are willing to read your manuscript for free may not be able (or willing) to tell what needs to be fixed.
On the other hand, you can practice your short pitch on anyone. When someone asks, “What you do,” respond by saying, “I’m a writer.” I can almost guarantee that person will follow up by asking, “What do you write?”
That’s your moment to deliver your pitch. As you share your pitch, watch the listener’s face for clues. Do they seem interested?
Then stop talking and listen to their questions. If they don’t ask questions, your pitch, and thus your story, may need some work. It might feel disheartening at the moment, but it’s best to find that out before you spend a year typing sentences.
Each year, I host a special pitch practice for writers who plan to attend the Realm Makers conference. In the process of clarifying a story’s pitch, major problems often emerge that send the writer back to the drawing board to refine their story. It can be discouraging to discover plot problems right before a conference. Still, it’s better to work them out beforehand than to deliver a broken pitch during your once-in-a-lifetime appointment with your dream agent or publisher.
Practicing and honing your pitch while your book is still in its embryonic stage gives you time to help your book grow in the right direction.
The best time to work on your pitch is before you start writing your book. The second-best time to work on your pitch is right now.
A Good Pitch Answer the Most Important Question
“Why should I read this book?” People rarely ask out loud, but it’s always first in their minds. You’ll only have a few seconds to answer, but it is the first and most important question your reader will ask.
If you give a long answer, it’s like trying to throw a basketball from a baseball pitcher’s mound. The bigger the ball, the harder it is to throw.
An effective pitch must be brief. To develop a short and compelling pitch, you must focus on the most compelling element of a book.
That sounds easy, but it is not.
Because if your book is well-written, there are many compelling elements. The best writers often have multiple compelling elements in their stories.
Book Pitches Are Not Book Reports
In school, you probably wrote a lot of book reports. The purpose of a book report was to force you to read the whole book. To prove that you completed the book, you had to report on everything you read.
A pitch doesn’t aim to prove anything.
The purpose of a pitch is to make someone curious. You want to infect your listener with the sickness of curiosity so that the only prescription that will cure their curiosity is to read your book. When you reveal too much, you kill curiosity, and the reader loses their need to read.
Don’t Spoil Your Book in the Pitch
No writer reveals the murderer’s identity in the pitch for their mystery novel, but many authors give away second-act plot points in their pitch. I don’t start enjoying a book until I have read beyond what the pitch or back cover told me.
As a general rule, your pitch shouldn’t give away the plot points that happen after your inciting moment or the fateful decision moment. If you can’t make your pitch interesting using only the elements and information from Act One, then you might need to revise your story.
The Book Pitch Worksheet
Determining the most compelling aspect of your book can be difficult, but I have created a worksheet companion for this episode that will help you find the most compelling aspect of your book.
Fill out the following form to receive the fillable worksheet via email.
The Plot Pitch
The first place to look for your most compelling element is in your plot.
Specifically, you want to look in these areas:
- What does your protagonist want more than anything else?
- Why does your protagonist want that thing?
- How does your protagonist’s desire change at the moment of the fateful decision?
Wherever your protagonist’s desire changes, you’ll often find your most compelling element.
Think of the moment when Luke Skywalker decides to save the princess instead of staying home. The fateful decision changes the desire of Catniss Everdeen so that she volunteers as tribute. Bilbo Baggins is so affected by the fateful decisions that he decides to join the Dwarves on their quest.
- Why is it important for your protagonist to obtain that desire?
- What happens if the protagonist fails to get that desire?
- Who suffers from the protagonist’s failure?
High stakes cause your reader to care about the protagonist’s burning desire. The stakes don’t always need to have end-of-the-world consequences, but they do need to resonate with your reader. Your stakes must matter to your target reader.
- What bad thing happens if your protagonist is too late?
- Why does your protagonist need the desire right now?
Urgency is a go-to tool for thrillers. Not all readers want a book with high urgency. The degree of urgency in your book will signal to a reader where your novel lands on the exciting/relaxing continuum.
Perhaps the most compelling element is not what happens in your book but rather who your book is about.
If your most compelling element is one of your characters, it will be one of the following three characters.
The protagonist is usually the point-of-view character, and it’s typically the character who makes decisions that move the story forward, even if it’s the bad guy (Think Thanos in Avengers Infinity War).
- Who is making the decisions that push the story forward?
- How does the protagonist change while striving for the desire?
- What makes your protagonist interesting?
- What makes your protagonist different?
- What makes your protagonist relatable?
As you write answers to these questions, you’re talking about your story rather than telling your story. What jumps out at you when you talk about your story? Is your villain actually your protagonist? Which character’s decisions affect the direction and movement of the plot?
Relationship (or Dynamic) Character
The relationship character comes alongside the protagonist on the journey of transformation. Sometimes the relationship character is a mentor like Obi-Wan Kenobi, and sometimes it is a companion like Samwise Gamgee. The aloof Mr. Darcy is also a relationship character.
The theme or message of the story is often expressed to or through the relationship character.
- Who joins the protagonist on the journey of transformation?
- How does the protagonist change as a result of his or her relationship with the relationship character?
Warning: Do not include more than three names in a pitch. Usually, two is sufficient. If your pitch is too long, cut the mention of the relationship character. For more information on the number and types of characters in your story, listen to the Writing Excuses Podcast on The Hollywood Formula.
- Who (or what) is preventing the protagonist from obtaining their desire?
- What does your antagonist want?
- How do the antagonist’s desires cause him or her to create obstacles for your protagonist?
- What does the antagonist do to keep the protagonist from getting what they want?
The antagonist puts obstacles between your protagonist and his or her main desire. The nature of the antagonist depends on the core conflict of your book.
Sometimes the most compelling element of your book is the core conflict. While stories can have vast and varied conflicts, typically, one primary conflict drives the story. This primary conflict is a great place to look for your most compelling element.
There are six types of conflict in literature. Discovering which one drives your story will help you determine the core conflict of your story.
Protagonist against man.
From Cain and Able to Iron Man and Captain America, character-against-character is the most common conflict in literature. Between the protagonist and his desire stands an antagonist who wants the protagonist to fail.
Protagonist against himself.
What happens when someone is their own worst enemy? There is a lot of room for conflict on the journey between knowing the right thing to do and carrying it out. Anyone who has tried to break a habit, lose weight, or kick an addiction can relate to being one’s own worst enemy. Of the six types of conflict, character-against-self is the most relatable and least exotic. Think of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Bruce Banner and the Hulk.
Protagonist against nature.
Whether it’s the weather, a beast, or a pandemic, nature can get in the way of your protagonist’s mission to get what they desire. Nature makes an interesting antagonist because it can’t be reasoned with. Forces of nature require the protagonist to confront it through primarily physical means. The protagonist can’t reason with a wolf, but he can punch it in the face.
Nature has a fascinating lack of malice but also a lack of mercy or remorse. A volcano has no malice towards a town. Likewise, it has no mercy as it kills all the inhabitants.
Protagonist against society.
When your protagonist is in conflict with society, they are outnumbered and often battle ideas rather than the people themselves. It’s a one-versus-many conflict. Your protagonist may have to face off against a religion, a government, or a community.
You can’t punch an idea in the face, so society and nature are opposite antagonists in some ways. When battling nature, your protagonist must engage primarily in the physical realm. When fighting society, your protagonist often fights with words.
The pen is mightier than the sword when fighting society, but the sword is mightier than the pen when fighting a wolf.
Protagonist against the supernatural.
What happens when the antagonist opposing the protagonist is unimaginably more powerful? A supernatural opponent is interesting because of the asymmetry of power. How does one challenge a god? How do you survive an attack from a vampire or a superior alien race?
You might think this is the most exotic kind of conflict, but it isn’t. Children and young adults can easily relate to this conflict. Adults have immeasurably more power than children or teens. Adults are bigger, faster, smarter, and have more resources. I suspect that’s why character-against-supernatural is so popular in the YA genre. It easy for an angsty teen to relate to a human vampire hunter who fights powerful vampires.
Protagonist against his creation.
What happens when someone creates his or her own antagonist? Over centuries of storytelling, this type of conflict has expanded from familial and dynastic conflicts to Frankenstein’s Monster and Hal 9000.
The protagonist-against-his creation is the least relatable and most exotic of the six types of conflict. Most people have no idea what it’s like to have a prodigal son or to create a monster, and perhaps that’s why it’s the rarest of the conflicts used in literature. But the fact that it’s so rarely used also makes it appealing.
If you haven’t yet discovered your book’s most compelling element, there is one last place to look.
Sometimes the most interesting element of your story is not the “who” or the “what” but the “where.” The setting pitch is most common for genres like fantasy and science fiction, where the author has done much world-building. The setting pitch answers the question, “Why would I want to spend time in your story world?”
James Bond stories are fun because not only because you experience life as a wealthy and powerful secret agent but also because you get to visit exotic places. Visiting Rome as a tourist is much different than visiting Rome as James Bond.
The setting is typically used as a “flavoring” for one of the other types of pitches, but sometimes it can stand on its own.
Questions to tease out your setting:
- How is the book’s setting different from the real world?
- What makes the setting interesting?
- Why would this setting be a fun place to visit?
Putting it All Together
Once you have answered all the questions on the worksheet that accompanies this article, you’ll have lots of ingredients to work with when you cook up your pitch.
So, let’s do some cooking.
First, prepare a pitch that focuses on character. Then write a second pitch that focuses on the plot and so on. As you work on your different pitches, try to narrow it down to just two or three of your best. Then, the next time someone asks, “What do you write,” try one of your pitches.
As you write various pitches, you will learn which one works best, but you will also discover that different pitches work better for different kinds of people. The more you pitch, the better you will understand your readers.
You’ll learn to talk about your book in a way that makes people ask the next important question, “Where can I buy your book?”
I crafted this plan with bestselling and award-winning author James L Rubart to be step by step guide through the first five years of your writing career. Learn each quarter what to do to succeed and avoid the mistakes that hijack the success of most authors. Learn more at AuthorMedia.com/courses.
Heresy is fatal in late Renaissance Italy, so only a suicidal zealot would so much as whisper the name of Martin Luther. But after Luther’s ideas ignite a young girl’s faith, she must choose–abandon her beliefs or risk her life in the turbulent world of late sixteenth-century Italy.
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