Heads up! Pitch Pro Sarah Isaacson has a Query Clinic here PACKED with info to help you escape the slush pile. For length, my intro is short, so read on for a bounty of query advice gold to put into action.
The purpose of a pitch is to hook a reader or land an agent. You must be able to describe your entire passion project in a concise and compelling manner. But how do you accomplish this effectively without losing the heart of your work? I break it down beat-by-beat in this query clinic.
The Pitch: Your pitch must consist of the following: the protagonist, setting, conflict or villain. It must display the title in all CAPS (not italics) and provide the genre, word count, and an author bio. Additionally, it is most compelling if it can be done in or around 300 words.
The Hook: The best pitches also have a hook—a sentence that sums up the entire book in less than 25-words. Kind of like the logline you see on movie posters. The very best of them include irony. Irony is “an action which has the opposite, or different effect than the one initially desired.” Irony is what twists your plot and forces your characters to grow.
Check out these killer hooks:
- Imprisoned, the almighty Thor finds himself in a lethal gladiatorial contest against the Hulk, his former ally. —Thor: Ragnarok
(Irony: friends turned to foes)
- Set in the South, a crusading local lawyer risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime. –To Kill a Mockingbird
(Irony: a white southerner defends an African-American man, also present: binaries of white/black, law/crime)
- As he plans his next job, a longtime thief tries to balance his feelings for a bank manager connected to one of his earlier heists, as well as the F.B.I.—The Town
(Irony: the criminal falls for his victim, also a play on Stockholm syndrome)
The Body: Here is what goes into the body of your pitch beat-by-beat:
- Protagonist and setting—present the main character’s world as it is.
- Catalyst or conflict—the moment where everything changes. The theme is stated.
- But there’s a debate because change is scary—she could gain something or lose everything—tension, risk.
- The plot or journey begins and sometimes the “B” story or supporting character (lover, friend, or mentor) can go here.
- Depending on the story, this is the moment where the protagonist gets what they think they want, or things turn for worse. Because sometimes what we want, isn’t what we need. Either way, it’s tense and uncertain!
- The villains are closing in, all is lost. This is emotional. The bottom. Doubt, fear, or a serious problem arises—it takes everything to regroup.
- Now a shining inspiration (or advice from the “B” story friend/lover/mentor) helps our protagonist realize that what they’ve lost makes way for something new. It’s time to try again.
- Rather than give away what happens in your final act or chapters, end here on a question or statement that circles back to the irony or theme within the hook. Can she? Will they?
Ready for the Query Clinic? You tweeted, I listened. #WHWPitch winners
Kaylee Myhre Errecaborde and Amy Lane have both been generous to let us showcase their “before” and “after” pitches for this exercise. Read with a critical eye and see if you can pick out the beats in each.
[ALL THE RULES OF HEAVEN “BEFORE” word count: 425]
If Tucker Henderson could list a profession, it would be “Karma’s bitch.” Tucker is an empath whose one-night-stand bedmates wake up with a life-changing epiphany. Refusing the “call” to use this rather odd power has tragic results, and Tucker has long since learned that his life is not his own. He combats the bitterness and anger of being trapped into a life of meaningless sex by enjoying the small things–food, a free day, and the few moments of human connection he shares with his bedmates.
When Tucker inherits Daisy Place, he’s pretty sure it’s not a windfall–everything in Tucker’s life has come with strings attached. He’s prepared to do his bit to satisfy the supernatural forces that have dicked with his life so far, but he refuses to be all sweetness and light about it.
Angel was sort of hoping for sweetness and light.
Angel has been trapped at Daisy Place for over fifty years. In the beginning, he helped Tucker’s late aunt exorcise the ghosts–Aunt Ruth would tell the stories in his presence and the ghosts would find peace. When Tucker shows up to take over Ruth’s job, Angel vows to be more accommodating and “human” than he was with Ruth–but Tucker’s layers of cynicism and apparent selfishness irritate Angel almost immediately. Angel has no way of knowing that Tucker has given pretty much everything a man could want–home, family, friends, goals–in order to serve mankind as his gift demands. Which is fair, because Tucker has no way of knowing that Angel is not a ghost.
Although he’s forgotten how he arrived, Angel is in fact, an angel–he was lured by the lush humanity of Daisy Place, and became trapped between worlds, just like the ghosts Tucker must exorcise. He’s hoping that once the weight of souls is cleared from Daisy Place, he will be able to ascend to the heavens again, free and clear of all the pesky human detritus that has so cluttered the crumbling mansion that trapped him here on earth.
Or that was his goal before Angel met Tucker. Angel finds Tucker to be an irritating, baffling, kind and empathetic human puzzle, and he finds himself changing forms and genders as a response to his roller-coaster emotions. Can Angel retain his divine intentions when his heart is proving all too human?
Angel never expected to love Tucker; Tucker never expected to love his soul-crushing job. Divine forces insist they work together–but can they exorcise Daisy Place before they drive each other insane?
[ALL THE RULES OF HEAVEN “AFTER” word count: 180]
Tucker Henderson’s soul-crushing job leads him to Daisy Place where he meets Angel, the genderbending spirit that will either drive him insane or set him free.
Tucker is technically destiny’s dick. He’s an empath whose one-night-stands wake up with a life-changing epiphany—great for them—not so good for him. But refusing the “call” to use his odd power has tragic results. Embittered by his divine duty of revelatory sex, he struggles for his own comfort between every hookup. Then he inherits Daisy Place. He’s pretty sure it’s not a windfall—everything in Tucker’s life has come with strings attached. He’s prepared to satisfy the supernatural forces that suck the soul out of him, but he isn’t expecting Angel, a multi-gendered energy who’s been stuck at Daisy Place for over 50 years. Tucker has one mission and Angel has forgotten his purpose. Now divine forces insist they work together—but can they exorcise Daisy Place before they drive each other insane?
ALL THE RULES OF HEAVEN is an Urban Fantasy complete at 94,000-words and is part of a planned series.
[A THOUSAND NIGHTS IN PATAGONIA “BEFORE” word count: 283]
I’m pleased to introduce my upmarket historical fiction, A THOUSAND NIGHTS IN PATAGONIA. The novel is a vividly re-imagined tale of one of Western America’s most notorious outlaws and the woman who will define his fate.
It is 1899 and the American frontier is being swept away with the railroad. Etta, equally as beautiful as naive, is morosely out of place in the parlor houses of Hell’s Half Acre, Texas. She is hopelessly alone and trapped within a life she doesn’t want. Meanwhile Harry is infamous for his crimes, worn-down by his run from the law and wondering how the life he’d hoped for–a simple life–had slipped from his grasp. A heinous crime made in desperation will bring them face to face, sending them running from the lives they know, running from the people they’ve been.
And so begins a beguiling historical account of two outlaws misjudged. From the harsh realities of the American West, to the streets of New York City, Harry is a man destined to find his heart and his future in the enigmatic landscapes of Argentina, and in the honest truth of Etta. But his crimes in America are too great to be forgotten. Pursued by detectives once again, he will be forced to make an impossible choice–to follow his heart and renounce his past, or be immortalized as the man he most fears in order to save the woman he loves.
The story of Harry and Etta is as extraordinary as it is tragic. At 95,000 words, the novel is meticulously researched. Far outside the legendary tales of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ the story of Harry and Etta is waiting to be told.
[A THOUSAND NIGHTS IN PATAGONIA “AFTER” word count: 219]
One of Western America’s most notorious outlaws lives on his own terms, until he falls for the woman who will define his fate.
The year is 1899 and the American frontier is being swept away with the railroad. Beautiful, naïve Etta is out of place in the parlor houses of Hell’s Half Acre, Texas. Infamous for his crimes, Harry is worn-down by his run from the law, and wondering how the simple life he’d hoped for has slipped from his grasp. When a desperate crime brings Harry and Etta face-to-face, they must run from the people they’ve been. Now begins an historical account that traverses the harsh realities of the dusty American West, to the streets of New York City. Harry is a man destined to find his heart in Etta and his future in the enigmatic landscapes of Argentina. But his crimes in America are too great to be forgiven. Hounded by detectives, he will be forced to make an impossible choice: to follow his heart and renounce his past, or be immortalized as the man he most fears to save the woman he loves.
A THOUSAND NIGHTS IN PATAGONIA is a vividly re-imagined upmarket historical fiction. Far outside the legendary tales of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ the novel is meticulously researched and complete at 95,000-words.
Did the AFTERS draw you in? Could you track all the key query elements? Is there anything you would add, cut, or change? Questions, comments…please, let us hear your thoughts!
Need help getting noticed in the slush pile? Sarah can help!
Sarah Isaacson specializes in screenplay pitches, book jackets, and novel queries that pop. Her writing experience spans from movie trailer copy to Warner Bros. She’s worked in TV and film from Indie to Disney and has read more novels than she can count.
Follow her at @unofficiallysarah on Instagram or @sarahisaacson1 on twitter.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Thanks a bunch. I really appreciated all these tips that i could have never known. From now and then i am going to use them in order to be much better at writing my stories.
Vicky Manning says
Victoria Marie Lees says
Excellent tips here. Thanks so much. The examples you’ve given show us how to [hopefully] accomplish this ourselves. I’ve shared this post online.
Sarah Isaacson says
Victoria, thank you for reading and sharing! Don’t hesitate to reach out with questions!
Mona AlvaradoFrazier says
What a difference! Thanks for the tips on tightening up a query. Looks easy but I still find it difficult. Well, try, try again. 🙂
Mona, it just takes practice. When I first started, I rewrote pitches for popular books and TV shows and tried to improve the hooks. It helps to first look at other people’s work and then use those skills on your own. Good luck!
Sarah Isaacson says
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Thanks so much for posting today, Sarah. Getting a query as strong and tight as it can be is a huge challenge, and I know this will help a lot of people on the query trail. 😉
Sarah Isaacson says
Thanks for having me on today! Pitching can be frustrating and I hope this helps.