Pitching practice for writers

SERVED UP Making a meal of your hard writing work.
SERVED UP Making a meal of your hard writing work.

WHEN I was a teenager with a head full of writing dreams and acres of my very own fantasy novels in my wake,  one of my favourite pastimes was designing the covers of my latest books, long before I’d even written a word.

Despite the fun of emulating the great cover designs of the day, this process was a handy short-term distraction from the long-term graft of capturing ideas and writing them into shape.

When I returned to fiction writing five years ago, I was determined to avoid this salacious trap and eschewed all musings on titles, covers, blurbs and similar ego-massaging pastimes.

I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Then I read, and read, and read.

When I eventually began making submissions to publishers, who asked me to describe, define and sell my work to them, I reached the point of forming what’s known as a pitch.

Time for a little dreaming, then. Here’s what I learned …

Titles always change

Manuscripts need to have a file name on your computer, so you (and anyone you submit them to) doesn’t lose them, but that’s all they need. Nailing that one great title for our work is a great way to inspire us to create a whole pitch-ready work, but don’t get precious about what it’s called if a publisher or agent has other ideas. Jane Austen’s working title for Pride and Prejudice was, simply, First.

Blurbs are best

The sales tool used by publishers on the back cover of printed books, traditionally known as a blurb, is the benchmark for pitching language. Strike a balance between the raw courage of “it’s Jurassic Park meets Star Wars” and the blandness of “this is the best novel written about dinosaurs in space”. Go back to the storytelling strategy of your plot and work that into your blurb, with all its tensions, turning points and battles.

Give away the ending

Publishers and agents know good storytelling, but don’t expect them to suspend their disbelief about yours. The main difference between your pitch and the eventual blurb of your work is that you must let the publisher/agent into its secret. This takes courage, because when we reveal our work’s one big secret, the thing we feel will make people love it, it feels like giving away all our power. Be brave and let it go, because your plot’s turning point may be the key to keeping your work out of the slush pile.

Keep images to yourself

One heartening and inspiring tool I make use of is imagery. I like to find one strong image which I imagine would work on a book cover. It evolves through the writing process, of course, but sometimes I find images so arresting they end up informing the story and characters. I never submit these images as part of my pitch, but I work with them,  keeping them in mind whenever I am asked what my story is about.

Have an answer ready

Family and friends love to know what we’ve been spending our writing time doing, and they’re  a great test audience for verbal pitches. Most writers squirm when asked about their work, but a little preparation and practice helps to have an answer ready when someone asks: “So, what’s your book about?” As with the blurb, go back to your plot. If you can’t answer this question to a friendly audience, you are probably not ready to pitch it to a publisher.

There are only seven great stories

The great Arthur Quiller-Couch was one of the first modern writers to maintain there are a limited number of story archetypes embedded in human existence. Other thinkers have fleshed-out his approach, but the basic premise has not altered. What you are writing will be found in one of those story brackets. It’s your job to stretch the medium into new territory. That’s possibly what being original means.

What’s it like?

Publishers and agents often ask for a few examples of existing titles our work is similar to. Don’t snap straight to “it’s entirely original”, have a look at the marketplace, both the new titles and the classics. There will be echoes of your work in there. Use them to define what you’re writing. See what major genres the publishing industry has divided the book trade into, and work out where you fit. If you don’t know, publishers probably won’t waste their time working it out for you.

Break the rules, a little

WRITE REGARDLESSCreating and sending multiple pitches can get very boring. Have some fun and break the rules a little. I recently sent a pitch to a publisher who said “no unsolicited material”, and they looked at it! Doing this each and every time is probably not a great way to get a book published, but now and again, mix it up. There is really nothing to lose when you think about the crazy odds of the publishing trade.

An extract from Write, regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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