Monday, 1 February 2010

PITCH YOUR HOOK

Yes, yes, yes: it's the writing that counts. But your aim is that people should read it, no? In order to get people to read it, you have to pitch it to them. So, your pitch must hook your reader - in this case an agent or publisher - and this hook forms the basis of your pitch.

Pitches and hooks? Gah - get to the point, wummun!

A blog-reader, Sarah from the Slushbusters blog, asked me to say something about pitches because they're running a Polish your Pitch comp over there. [Not in Poland - yes, I was confused, too.] So, I will say something. Inevitably, I will say several things.

First, the word "pitch", in this context, means, "the short, snappy thing which will beautifully and compellingly describe your book in such a way that no agent or editor who handles such books could possibly pass on by and no reader who reads such books could possibly not read it." Sometimes when we say "pitch" we mean "the whole approach and submission". That's not what we're talking about here.

So, your hooky pitch describes your book in a very few seconds [because that's all you may get]. It is never too early to work out how you will pitch your hook as you never know when you might need it. For example:
  • At any point during the writing of your tome, someone may say to you, "So, what's your book about, then?" [They always call you "then", for some reason.] You will blanche internally, and possibly externally. If you don't have a hook, you will then start gabbling and using phrases like "sort of", "and then", "kind of", "well", "oh, and also", "but the thing is", "to cut a long story short", "mysteriously", "and meanwhile, while all that's going on" and, finally, "well, I can't really explain but it'll all become clear when you read it." And your audience will have drifted away to cut its toe-nails.
  • At many points after publication, the same question will be asked.
  • But, way before that happy point, you certainly need it when you first approach an agent or editor formally.
  • You may even bump into such a person in unforeseen circs, and you may suddenly feel the urge to pitch your book there and then. If you start waffling now and getting involved in sub-plots, you've lost your fish.
  • Also, your agent will need to pitch it to a publisher and your editor will need to pitch it to the sales and marketing people, who wouldn't dream of actually reading your book. They need your hook and it needs to be simple, because they like simple things.
  • Sales and marketing people will then start writing Amazon blurbs, still without having read the book. They will certainly need your hook then.
So, get it right.

Or them, because actually you need two forms of hooky pitch. You need the written one, all beautifully scripted with not a word out of place. And you need the spoken one, the one that sounds like [because it is] you talking from the heart about your fabulous book.

Pointy point about hooky pitches: if you plan your hook beforehand, it can hugely help you focus your book while you're writing it. I usually write a blurb for my books before I write anything else. After all, if I know what it's about, that kind of helps.

Tips about your hooky pitch:
  • It must be short. How short? As short as possible while still saying what the book is about. [Ignore all those annoying** people, including important agents, who say you have to use maximum 3 sentences.The thing about rules like that is that you then write really long sentences and anyone who is hung up on number of sentences isn't really thinking about the power of language. I could write the examples below in max three sentences if I wanted to, but they'd be no better, and actually would be clunky and ugly. So, people with unhelpful rules, please butt out remove your posteriors.]
  • Brainstorm some words that seem to encapsulate your book - and use those words.
  • Imagine that when you begin, the listener /reader is expecting you to be just another idiot wannabe who thinks she's written a great book. Your hook has one objective: prove them wrong.
  • Inject some passion into it, whether it's written or spoken.
  • Be confident but not cocky. Don't say um and sort of.
[**I don't mean you, Slushbusters, with your lovely competition! Comps need rules.]

Here's the sort of thing I'd say in conversation if someone asked me, "What's your next book about, then?"
"It's called Wasted, partly because it's about alcohol, but it's really about risk, danger and passion - and wasted chances. Jack - who has had luck so horrible that he thinks it can never get any worse - plays incredibly risky games with chance, tossing a coin and obeying it, whatever the danger. Luck brings him the gorgeous Jess, whose mother is an alcoholic, but in one terrifying night luck runs out for Jack and Jess and then you, the reader, have to toss the coin and determine the ending: life, or death?"
And then, if they were still listening, I'd go into a bit more detail, either mentioning the Schrodinger's Cat angle, or the alternative realities during the book, or the alcohol elements, depending on the audience. There are several things I could mention, each of which has worked well, but I judge it according to who's listening. For example, I might say, "Oh, and twice during the book I write two versions of events and then toss a coin to choose which one actually happens, so the reader sees one possibility disappear."

I do not then waffle on. Though I am sorely tempted. Obviously, given any encouragement, I would. Which happened the other day when I was talking to some teenagers who got very excited and we ended up having a conversation about causal determinism and Buddy Holly...

If I was pitching it to an agent or publisher, in writing, I'd say:
"Wasted is a story of danger, passion and chance. Jack is obsessed by luck. He lets the toss of a coin rule his actions, whatever the risks. Chance brings him Jess, a beautiful singer who will change his life. But their luck won't last for ever. During a night of heady recklessness, they run out of choices. Now it's the reader's turn to take a risk: spin a coin and determine life...or death."
I cheated. That's actually the blurb on the back of the book. But I wrote that, too. So there.

Anyway, please don't get tangled up in rules. Rules are offered by people like me who are trying to help and make things easier, but sometimes they don't. Every book is different and every book requires a different hooky pitch to describe its essence and to hook the reader's enthusiasm. So, it's up to you how you do it. Just get it right in as few words as you can. Inspire, intrigue and hook.

But, if you want rules, I can certainly tell you some things NOT to do in your hooky pitch:
  • Don't use one word more than necessary.
  • Don't bother with minor characters and sub-plots. [Sub-plots may be mentioned in a longer query but not in this distillation.]
  • Don't say how brilliant the book is. Avoid adjectives which describe the book.
  • Don't second-guess the market by saying how popular it's going to be or how it's just made for the big screen.
  • I can't actually think of any more things not to do, but I'm sure you can.
Over to you! Go and enter the Slushbusters competition! You've got till tomorrow evening...

By the way, if I meet you, I will ask you, "So, then, what's your book about?" And you will tell me and then you will ask me the same question and we will be fans of each other for ever and ever.

    31 comments:

    dirtywhitecandy said...

    I love the idea of writing the blurb first! I do something similar - a Post-It on the edge of my screen to remind me what the overall focus of the story is.

    I totally agree that it is important to rehearse a verbal pitch. I call it the 'party pitch' - what you'd say to someone at a party who is standing there asking you to amaze them. It's a good way to practise, too, because you can get feedback from their reactions and refine your phrasing and delivery.

    Stroppy Author said...

    I'm full of admiration that you can write the blurb first. I have difficulty writing it the day before the cover goes to repro and the editor is screaming at me. What a hero you are, Nicola :-)

    boxofficegirl said...

    This is some of the best advice I've read yet - thank you.

    You're very funny too.

    Delia Lloyd said...

    Thanks nicola. This was great help, esp the part about "speaking from the heart" when you do the verbal pitch. I think my own pitch needs a refurb....gracias.

    delia lloyd
    www.realdelia.com

    Thomas Taylor said...

    My WIP suggests some great material for a hook (I'd say) but I now feel very foolish that I don't have a carefully worked out phrase to deliver at parties. In fact, I've been asked the what's-it-about question several times recently and been quickly reduced to umming and useless arm waving. I'll set this right straight away. Thank you!

    "It's about stuff, and life, and... you know, blood-sucking angels, so..."

    Captain Black said...

    Shades of The Dice Man mixed in with the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. I'm intrigued already. I guess this means your blurb worked. And my TbR pile just gained some height.

    Marshall Buckley said...

    If I meet you and you ask me "So, then, what's your book about?" I will answer "Which one?" because:
    a. It won't be the answer you're expecting and
    b. It'll give me time to come up with a snappy answer which avoids use of words like "sort of" and "um".

    Of course, now I've given away my cunning plan...

    But, yes, I'm completely with you. Had an awaful time trying to describe the first book, because I wanted to make it interesting without giving anything away.

    KarenG said...

    I wrote a Friday post on the pitch, and one thing I mentioned was the idea of a "me in 30 seconds" for your book. This is something used in employment seminars to help people prepare for interviews. Anyway, not to hijack your blog to promote my own, sorry about that...but the "me in 30 seconds" is a helpful tool to master when pitching. Because the tendency is to repeat oneself, say too much, and stutter. Keeping it to 30 seconds avoids that problem, but it takes practice to master.

    Sarah said...

    Thanks, Nicola! I've already linked this post in our contest resources.

    Polish Your Pitch is confusing isn't it? (Sounded far more alliterative and far less ethnic when we were discussing it.)

    I had no idea you wrote a blurb before you started writing. I'm in the middle of a bit rewrite because I had to write a pitch for my MS.

    Xuxana said...

    Brilliant! Thanks for the advice! You write so funny! I love it! Here's my hooky blurb:

    My novel is called Bedevilled because it's a story about an ordinary woman who one day finds out she's really the Devil. Bubbles doesn't want to be the Devil and can't understand how she's gotten herself into this situation in the first place. It's because she's always been quite the pushover. Can Bubbles learn to stick up for herself? Is she doomed to spend an eternity reigning over Hell? And why does it seem like her BFF is gunning for God, who just so happens to be her ex-husband?

    What do you think? Is it stupid?

    KarenG said...

    No, it's intriguing, I like it and I popped over to your blog to tell you so!

    Donna Gambale said...

    Bravo! And seriously, I laughed out loud at: "And your audience will have drifted away to cut its toe-nails." Excellent use of gross out humor. I'm waist-deep in rewriting my query, and though I have a nice two-sentence hook, it's the query expansion without over-expansion that's giving me trouble!

    sheilamcperry said...

    Thanks Nicola, this is extremely useful - if only I had read it before making an idiot of myself at a writing workshop by mumbling something like 'It's about a man, because I think men have been given a bad press lately.'!! (no I don't really think that, but I am useless at thinking of odd sentences on the spur of the moment so I tend to say the only thing that comes into my head - rermembering your advice and practising a hooky hook could save me the next time)

    catdownunder said...

    Well, that certainly made me think about what I would say about my new WIP!

    Jo Treggiari said...

    I try to do this before I write the book as well because it helps keep me on track.
    It is one of the hardest parts of being a writer, I find (together with the synopsis, the query, the blurb). I wonder if you have to use a different area of the brain to do it? But is also crucial. If you can't sum up your book in a few concise sentences then you'll lose the thread somewhere in the writing process.

    DanielB said...

    Writing a blurb is a great idea. It forces you to think about whose story it is, what kicks it off and what conflict/crisis they face. You can also end it with dangling questions to which only you know the answer:

    "Alone in a changed world, can Tamsin and Socrates locate the Harmonising Sapphire and banish the Necromancer? And will the Universe ever be the same?"

    Bit melodramatic, but you get the idea.

    I am always writing blurbs for books I will not necessarily write - it's the first thing I make myself do when I "get an idea". I get my writing students to do it for their as-yet-unwritten novels as well.

    On my computer I currently have 63 potential blurbs. Seriously. I am not joking. I expect 52 of them are rubbish, 8 are quite good ideas but wouldn't make interesting enough novels, and 3 could be really good. The problem is knowing which is which.

    Jemi Fraser said...

    Thank you! Great advice as always. And timely too. I'm off the check the contest out :)

    Dan Holloway said...

    Wonderful stuff, Nicola. And thanks for the comp link. This takes me back to the 80s, of course, and the days of the "high concept" movie and so called "elevator pitch". The most legendary, of course was "Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. As twins."

    And then came the inevitable deconstruction with that marvellous scene in Robert Altman's The Player.

    I'm so glad you mention that there are two pitches, because I find myself torn to smithereens sometimes and oscillating wildly between two for Songs, depending on my audience.

    I see no one's mentioned the twitpitch. EVERYONE should have a twitpitch. Everyone who's on twitter, anyway - and if you're an author not on twitter - why? You get to talk about chocolate and shoes with @nicolamorgan apart form any other enticements. You never know when someone's going to ask you to pitch your book to them on twitter (ALWAYS wait to be asked. Cold pitching is VERY rude). You need to have a 120 character reply ready off the cuff (not 140 - you'll be replying them so you need to leave characters for their name).

    I actually won a comp with my twitpitch (Murakami's Norwegian Wood. Set in Eastern Europe)- the only thing I've won for writing since I was 3rd in the local junior poetry festival 22 years ago :)

    Nicola Morgan said...

    OH - Dan, a twitpitch competition - what a fabulous idea! Can I nick that from you? That's a fab idea. But we'll do it on the blog not actually on Twitter, since not everyone is on Twitter. Then if anyone wants to organise an actual Twitter one, they can. But we (you and I and everyone) can tweet about it to get people interested. I'll put my mind to it in a couple of weeks.

    Stroppy - hero, eh? Do I detect irony?! I do find it useful to do the blurb first, but it's abs not a rule - just what works for me. And dirtwhitecandy too.

    Boxofficegirl - why, thank you!

    Thomas - I don't think it has to be a carefully worked out phrase, or it would sound a bit odd. But if you have a t the front of your mind the most important thing about the book and force yourself to say IT first and then possibly stop, that's a very good start. Practise different explanations in your head. Even rehearse something by getting a friend to ask you, out of the blue!

    Captain Black - you got it in one. I haven't yet read The Dice Man, but I am obvsiouly going to. I didn't want to read it till my proofs had been totally finalised, which is next week.

    MArshall - "which one?" might also make them blanche!

    KarenG - good point and good idea.

    Xuxana - thanks for your nice words. Re your intriguing blurb, can i suggest shortening it further? "Bedevilled is a story about an ordinary woman who finds out she's the Devil. Bubbles can't understand how she's gotten into this very unwelcome situation but she's always been a pushover. Is she doomed to spend eternity reigning over Hell or can she learn to stick up for herself? And why does it seem like her BFF is gunning for God, who happens to be her ex-husband?" It still says exactly the same, but it's shorter, and therefore tighter. Yes?

    Sheila - ouch! Yes, I think working on a hooky pitch could really save you AND help your book, so go for it!

    Dan - that is amazing! (Having so many prepared blurbs for books you haven't written.) I think it's a fabulous idea and pretty much sums up the importance of them. For the info of the rest of you, Dan is a highly successful writer who is on his way to being even more successful. He is an ideas machine and that's a very good thing to be. especially since he actually does put butt on chair and write things, and get them published.

    Jemi, Jo, cat, Delia, Sarah and anyone I've forgotten - thanks for your comments. They made me smile!

    Xuxana said...

    Thanks so much for fixing my blurb! It's brilliant now! How much do I owe you? :)

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Xuxana - undying admiration? That would do!

    Actually, I have a further suggestion. To avoid the incorrect use of the word "like", which should technically be "as if" because it is not comparing something to a noun, I suggest "And why does her BFF seem to be gunning for..." etc etc

    You could also remove the words "a story" from the beginning.

    I love the exercise of cutting words. I could do it all day. But first I really should go and write some...

    Xuxana said...

    *bows down in admiration*

    Fixed blurb again. Thank you a million times more! :)

    Dan Holloway said...

    Of course - the one I entered was actually something @Litchat ran on #litchat last year - #litpitch hashtag. Won an edit from @editorialdept - the pressure of the character limit is a great way to focus the brain!

    David Griffin said...

    Excellent advice as always Nicola, thank you.

    The few times people have asked me about my novels, I've been guilty of including the line: "Well, to cut a long story short".

    Getting the novel described in one line is a most useful exercise, and not just for a conversation filler at parties!

    :-)

    The Virtual Victorian said...

    Have you been talking to my husband? He asked for my 'hook' the other day, and then told me he didn't have all day to listen to such confusing waffle... said I should go away, practice it, memorise it and get it all down to three snappy sentences.

    Are you really him in disguise?

    Jesse Owen said...

    I'm intrigued by Xuxana's blurb - makes me want to read it :)

    P.S Yay! I'm finally up to date!

    Xuxana said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Xuxana said...

    Glad to hear you're intrigued too, Jesse! Now, I just hope my 'hooky pitch' works on UK Lit Agents ;)

    David Griffin said...

    Hi Xuxana (I'm sure Nicola won't mind me adding this:) I, also, really like your pitch. It sounds very tongue-in-cheek; and with a light dusting of humour, you could be onto a winner, in my opinion.

    :-)

    Bill in Detroit said...

    I like the idea of writing the blurb first. When I mention to my acquaintances that I am writing a book, I get blank stares. Mostly because they would have trouble reading a book. It would be nice to be able to say "I am writing a book about ..." and preempt the next question before it can even be asked. -- Bill

    Xuxana said...

    Thank you David. Humour is my main aim with this novel ;)