You’re at a writers’ conference where you’re lucky enough to meet a literary agent. When you tell her you’ve written a book, she asks, “What’s it about?” Do you start rambling aimlessly—and lose her interest? Or do you capture her imagination in seconds with one short sentence that makes her say, “Tell me more!”?
A short, strong “pitch” can be your single most powerful tool for catching someone’s attention and selling your book or article idea.
The “10-second pitch” is often called a logline because it’s based on the short descriptions in print and online TV and movie listings that sum up entire plots in one or two to entice viewers into watching. For example, googleAvatar and here’s what you’ll find on dozens of sites: “Avatar takes us to a spectacular world beyond imagination, where a reluctant hero has his consciousness linked to an avatar and embarks on an epic adventure, ultimately fighting to save the alien world he has learned to call home.”
Why the 10-second limit? Because in today’s frenetic publishing marketplace, agents and editors are drowning in submissions, with many agents receiving more than 200 a week. They want you to give them a quick “take” on your idea so they can decide whether they want to see more.
Capturing your idea in so few words can be daunting, but keep in mind that your pitch requires only two components: a short description of the protagonist (3 to 5 essential words) and the basic premise of the storyline. Here are 2 examples of loglines from writers’ conferences. The first one nails it, the second one doesn’t.
For a novel: “Sixth-grade girl super-glues a classmate to a chair—and gets stuck with her for six weeks.” This simple sentence gives us a clear snapshot of the main characters, the basic situation, and, most importantly, the inherent dramatic conflict that will move the story forward.
For a nonfiction book: “How not to teach and what not to teach adults.” It’s hard to tell what the book will be about because the logline is just an abstract idea. It doesn’t communicate a word picture. Also, it focuses on the negative. Focus on making your logline describe what the book is, not what it isn’t.
If tackling a logline for your own book or screenplay feels daunting, practice with movies you see and books you read. You can even compare your versions with, for example, those posted on TV and movie listing sites, Amazon, and even your local library site, which may carry publishers’ loglines such as this one for Isabelle Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea: “The story of a mulatta woman, a slave and concubine, determined to take control of her own destiny in a society where that would seem impossible.”
When working on loglines, think PLOT, not THEME. Thematic loglines, like the teaching project above, usually lack the promise of forward movement and dramatic action that are crucial to an effective story pitch.
The 10-second pitch is actually the first step of a very useful three-part process that can really move your writing forward in the marketplace. Here’s how it works. When the agent expresses interest by prompting you with, “Tell me more,” you should also be ready with what I call “the 30-second version.” This is a 50- to100-word (two or three short sentences) pitch that gives a few more details about the protagonist, the antagonist, and the basic plot.
When the agent responds with, “Interesting! Do you have a synopsis?,” you need to be able to say “Sure!” So your third step is to write a 500- to 700-word synopsis that covers the major plot line and subplots. Focus on your protagonist’s “character arc,” the transition that he or she undergoes as a result of the events in the book. Recount (briefly) one or two of the most dramatic, climactic scenes so agents and editors can see the story in their mind’s eye.
You may find it easier to work backward, from the longer synopsis to the 30-second pitch to the 10-second pitch. This may help you crystallize the real “spine” of your story. You may also find that the analytical work involved in creating a synopsis will highlight problem areas you need to resolve.
Well-crafted pitches are a boon to agents and editors for several reasons.
* First, you make it easy for them to judge whether your story is working and whether they resonate with it.
* Second, they can get a quick sense of whether they feel it’s marketable.
* Third, if they go for your project, you’ve made their job easier by supplying them with what they need to pitch your work to other editors and publishers…who may buy it.
In short, just 10 seconds of carefully crafted words can put you on the path to getting published.