Over the next couple of weeks thousands of writers will be polishing their Works in Progress and getting ready to submit to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Are you one of them? If so, don’t overlook the importance of the 300-word pitch. This is what judges will read first, and it sets the tone for the rest of your entry (and determines whether those busy judges keep reading). And with a $50,000 advance and publishing contract with Amazon as a grand prize, those 300 words may be the most significant you ever write.
What makes a good pitch? According to Amazon: “More than a summary, your pitch should highlight your concept, protagonist, setting and writing style—all the elements that make your story unique.”
Yeah, okay, but what does that mean? Here are a few tips to craft and polish a pitch that will leave judges (or agents, or readers) wanting more:
The most important thing to convey in a pitch is what’s at stake? Every good novel has some kind of inciting incident that throws your primary character (or characters) into a state of instability, whether that’s physical (a deranged stalker is putting lives in danger) or emotional (going home for the holidays brings up old family wounds). And then, typically, there are a series of events that continue to thwart the character and deepen the conflict. Use your pitch to break down that key conflict to a few sentences. If you can get your reader to invest in the situation that you’ve created, you’ve drawn them in, and they’ll want to know what happens next.
Tip: Think about your book like you would a movie trailer, and imagine the voice-over – you know, that deep-voiced man who seems to always start with “In a world, where [something happens]…” What’s happening in the world of your novel, and what will your hero/heroine have to overcome?
Who’s your main character, and why should I care about him or her? You might have a creative, gripping conflict, but if the reader doesn’t care about your characters, he or she will have trouble caring about what befalls them; if the characters are terrific, most readers are likely to be interested in just about anything they do. So once you establish what’s at stake, concentrate your pitch on building a bond between the reader and your protagonist. Make them care about what happens to this person, and invested in how their situation resolves.
Tip: Names are powerful ways to connect a character and a reader. Introduce your primary character by name in your pitch. The reader will intuitively care more about “Sarah” than “a young girl.” But use this power carefully and name only the most important characters (your protagonists and maybe your primary antagonist); if you try to name every secondary character, you’ll overwhelm the reader, and it will be harder to recognize who to care about.
Don’t get carried away by these dangerous currents.
- Too much back story. Don’t start a pitch by telling the reader about a character, or describing the history that led up to the inciting incident. You’ll need a few words to establish the setting (on the beach of California or the urban corridors of another planet? Is the war you mention the American Revolution or the Arab Spring?), but don’t get carried away. Use your first sentences to immediately get into the conflict of the novel.
- An outline of the entire novel. A good pitch is as much about what you leave out as it is about what you mention. Choose a few key turning points or interactions and focus on them, rather than trying to cram in every scene, every location, or every secondary character. A pitch isn’t the place to get into sub-plots, or to try to describe what motivates your character’s best friend. Choose 3-5 unique moments and use them as teasers to draw the reader deeper into the story. Let the rest be a surprise.
- Misleading tone. Your pitch should convey the same tone as your novel. If you’ve written a dark comedy, then your pitch should be funny. If it’s a fast-paced thriller, use short sentences and breathless anticipation to leave your reader at the edge of their seat. If your novel is literary and poetic, then let your style show in the description.
- The ending. The pitch is not the place to give away how the novel ends. Don’t tell the reader “whodunit” or how your protagonist finds resolution. The idea of a good pitch is to make the reader want to find out more, and to immediately crack open your book, and that doesn’t happen if you give them spoilers. Leave them wanting to know “what happens next?”