For me, writing a pitch is the first part of turning an idea into a novel, and it’s the first thing that I write down. This isn’t because I will need to sell the idea to others, although I do use the pitch for that and it’s handy to have one ready for my agent when I tell him what I’m working on next. But in truth the pitch is for me: I’ve found that if I try to write a book I can’t pitch, I’m setting myself up for trouble. For years I thought I was just bad at pitching, and then I discovered that actually, there was something wrong with the books I was writing.
My pitch will contain the main conflict of my novel. The so-what. The tension. The hook. That’s the piece of a book that gets readers reading, and keeps them there as the pages go by. Without knowing that, I can’t possibly write an effective outline, I can’t flesh out the characters, I can’t structure a plot, I can’t know which pieces of floating story belong in this book and which ones I should throw out. The pitch is my focus. It’s the filter for every other aspect of the book. As I create more things to go in the novel–characters, plots, events, settings–they all have to fit under the umbrella of the pitch, which will curtail the addition of anything that does not fit in its shade. If I can’t pitch the book, then I don’t know what it’s about. And if I can pitch it, then I know what it’s NOT about, which is just as valuable.
Another perk of having a pitch at this early stage is I have something to tell people when they ask what I’m working on. And the pitch is the only thing I tell to anyone (besides my husband), until after the first draft is written. This protects me from unwelcome comments, and from burning myself out on the story by talking about it too much.
So how do I go about forming a pitch? I take my initial idea–whatever drew me into the story in the first place. And then I figure out who my character is, and what the tension they are going to experience is. Then I try to assemble a single sentence that will convey all three.
Here’s an example pitch from a book I’ve been working on: sixteen-year-old Penny’s older sister is trying to adopt and failing, so Penny decides to get pregnant, so she can give her sister a baby.
I first came up with the idea to write this book while looking at a website full of profiles of families trying to adopt. Because these profiles were essentially appeals to birthmothers, they had to keep the information positive and happy, but through every word bled the pain and suffering these families were experiencing from so desperately wanting a child. It felt heavy to me. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the rhetoric surrounding the “wonder” of adoption, because before (and often after!) an average adoption can take place, all parties involved have to experience tragedy and pain. So, there is the issue of trying to adopt and failing. That’s my instigating idea, and what draws me to the book. Into the pitch it goes.
The tension is, of course, that Penny is sixteen and pregnant and it’s not at all a simple thing to do for someone, and is of course a terrible idea, though a well-meaning one. Penny’s character only goes into the pitch in the barest of ways, but after reading it you know that Penny is the sort of person who would want to help her sister, that her goal is to get pregnant, and that she’s trying to solve other people’s problems when maybe it’s not her place.
A good pitch is one that leaves the audience with questions, because then they want to know more. I don’t know how well I did at that, since I’m the writer and not the audience, but there are a number of questions I’m hoping you ask after hearing the pitch. How will Penny go about getting pregnant? How will her sister (and parents) react? How will their family sort out the complexity of relationships?
The answers to those questions (which I will ask, even if you don’t) become the bones of the structure of my book. Once I have a pitch, the next steps are build those bones into a functional plot structure, and generate all the ideas for the meat that’s going to hang on those bones.