HED: How’s Your Pitch?

So a producer of a very popular television show gives me a call a few weeks back. A fan of my novels, he wanted to know if the film rights to my 7th Son thriller trilogy were available to option for motion picture development. This was an “embarrassment of riches” moment: the trilogy was optioned to Warner Bros. last year.

I told him so, and we both did a verbal shrug: Them’s the breaks. Without missing a beat, he then asked: “So what are you working on now?”

My friends, always-always have an answer to this question, for you never know when you’ll be asked, or who’ll be asking. If you don’t have an answer, it’s because you’re not writing. You’re probably spending too much time watching TV, or talking about writing, or reading about writing, or dreaming about writing. Keep those fingers rak-a-takking on that keyboard. You were born to tell tales, right? Be sure you’re always telling them.

Thankfully, I had several projects on tap. With his go-ahead, I shared them.

Correction: I pitched them.

We wordherders pitch our fiction all the time. We pitch our trusted (and patient!) friends on the plot of our works in progress … we pitch agents in queries for representation … if we’re blessed enough to be published, we pitch at readings, during media interviews, and on blogs. Most of us love to talk about our writing.

So why do so many of us absolutely suck at pitching? A lack of practice and patience, I reckon.

Great pitches — and for many of us, this important task occurs most often in agent query letters — are comprised of several key ingredients. Like your fiction, they must have a great hook, and must resonate on intellectual and emotional levels. They’re heavy on sizzle and light on steak; these things are designed to dazzle, not data-dump the plot. Finally, pitches must be brief. A handful of sentences, tops.

During my call, I was able to distill one film project — an epic supernatural action story — into three sentences. Another project — a complex near-future thriller — was reduced to five. The producer was intrigued enough to ask for more information, and soon requested outlines for both. They’re now on his desk.

I reckon his interest hailed from the ideas fueling the stories … but I’m certain a hearty chunk of his brain was wooed by my economical presentation. Pitches are important, man. Done successfully, they commit theft — they steal your audience’s imaginations, and propel folks down a tantalizing road of make-believe just long enough to get them salivating for more.

There’s gobs of writerly value in thinking of your work in terms of “the pitch,” which I’ll share in a moment. But if you’re in the midst of the pitch zone — you’re querying agents, planning to so, or promoting your work — and are suffering from verbal vaporlock, I’m here to share some experience.

Here’s a snippet of the query letter that snagged my literary agent back in 2007, when I was hungry to find a publisher for 7th Son. (The novel was published last October by St. Martin’s Press.) It ain’t history’s best pitch, but it got the job done. I hope you find value in it.

Cameras flash and people cheer as President Hank “Gator” Griffin works the crowd at a political rally. But the smiles turn to shrieks when Griffin is murdered by an unlikely assassin — a four-year-old boy.

Days later, seven men are kidnapped and brought to a secret government facility. These strangers share a disturbing common bond: They all appear to be the same man, with the same name … and identical childhood memories.

Unwitting participants in a human cloning experiment, these seven “John Michael Smiths” have been gathered by their creators to catch the person behind the president’s murder. Their target: The man they were cloned from; the original John Michael Smith, code-named “John Alpha.”

One hundred thousand words, knocked down to six sentences. Hindsight being what it is, I should’ve probably whacked it down to four. However, if you dissect my pitch, you’ll spot some of those key ingredients I mentioned:

 • Killer hook (four-year-old assassin)

• Genre and sub-genres are identified (thriller; techno-, political, conspiracy, etc.)

• Protagonist twist #1 (our heroes are clones…)

• Protagonist twist #2 (…and didn’t know it)

• Badass antagonist (John Alpha)

• Intellectual and emotional resonance (human cloning is real; these men are not “unique”)

• Implied escalating stakes (if Alpha killed the president in the opening pages, what’s next?)

 Crafting killer pitches takes practice and patience. Economy and delivery are mission-critical. Here’s another example, a first-sentence hook snipped from the film outline for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, written by Simon Kinberg:

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a sexy, stylized action-comedy that’s a duel-to-the-death between the world’s top two assassins … who happen to be husband and wife, hired to kill each other.

Sweet Christmas, now that’s a hook — and it’s superbly, economically delivered. 

I mentioned that there’s writerly value in processing your work through the filter of “the pitch.” By keeping your pitch in mind as you write, you can easily remind yourself of your story’s essence. Your sizzling pitch represents more than plot — it focusses attention on your heroes, their conflicts, and the tone of your tale. It’s a far cry from an outline, but it can remind you of what makes your story special, and why you’re the only one who can write it. Such reminders will come in handy if you lose steam, or lose your way. 

I try to concoct a pitch mantra early in my writing process for this very reason. It clearly illustrates what I dig most about my story, and why I wanted to write it in the first place. Try boiling your story down to its beating heart. It’s not easy … but damn, it’s illuminating and empowering. 

As for the outlines I recently sent to that ice-cool producer: I have no earthly idea what, if anything, will hail from them. All I know is that I had an answer to his question “So what are you working on now?”, and was able to easily and economically articulate my projects. 

It was enough to snag a nibble of interest — and in this preposterous business of tale-telling, sometimes that’s all we need.

Image by MsCrys.

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About J.C. Hutchins

J.C. Hutchins crafts award-winning transmedia narratives, screenplays and novels for companies such as 20th Century Fox, A&E, Cinemax, Discovery, FOX Broadcasting, Infiniti and Macmillan Publishers. His latest creative endeavor is The 33, a monthly episodic ebook series.

Comments

  1. says

    EEEEEEEEE!!! Fingers crossed and throwing major good vibes your way, JC.

    Fantastic advice, too. I’m now doing loglines and pitches for all my projects before I start the writing. I also think having a strong pitch in place helps keep the story focused.

    I’m so thrilled for you!

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  2. says

    Great advice – thanks! Usually when friends and acquaintances ask what my novel’s about, I go deer-in-headlights and stammer about for awhile. Even though I’m still in the beginning stages, creating a three-sentence “pitch” will really help answer that question – to others and myself!
    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..Cinque Terre =-.

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  3. says

    This has always been one of my *most* favorite topics (which means I’m about to write a novel-length comment. haha). :)
    You made several good points here, but there are two that stood out to me: 1) always have a work-in-progress, and 2) have your pitch in mind *before* you start writing.
    That first one was never a problem for me (I can’t keep up with all my projects sometimes), but I just started doing the “pitch first, then write” method last fall. And you’re right; it works wonders for keeping you focused on the reasons why you fell in love with this idea. The best thing about it (as you also brought out… you’re just so darned thorough, JC) is that we really do love to talk about what we’re working on, even if it’s only to our family, friends, or fellow writers, so a well-delivered pitch will develop interest in your “up and coming” before you’ve even finished the first draft.
    And since I love the film industry just as much as the writing industry, I not only create loglines for my projects now, but also taglines. Slight difference, but can be just as difficult (both should have a good dose of irony and apparent opposites, in my opinion… and your examples above do just that).
    Yes, this is a difficult and admittedly frustrating part of the job, but it can also be oodles of fun. :)
    .-= Lydia Sharp´s last blog ..Author Spotlight: Ashley Atkins =-.

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  4. says

    Done successfully, they commit theft — they steal your audience’s imaginations, and propel folks down a tantalizing road of make-believe just long enough to get them salivating for more.

    Yes, yes, yes.

    Irony seems to be a key ingredient in a good hook, too, according to Blake Snyder (Save the Cat), and that’s present in your above pitch as well (murdered by a child; so many with same memory).

    And, finally, how flipping exciting for you! Can’t wait to hear what comes next.

    Thanks for another fantastic post, JC.

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  5. says

    Great, great post. Knowing how to craft a brief, irrestible pitch is useful at every stage. It goes in the query letter (written is a little different than spoken, but they’re both pitches), it gets used with agents and editors, it’s handy for unanticipated opportunities like a producer’s phone call (good luck JC!), and countless other places.

    My novel sold in October but doesn’t come out til next spring. You’d think I’d be in a place where pitching doesn’t happen. But I’ve met about 60 people at various book events over the past couple weeks, and in a way, I’m pitching them as potential readers! They ask “What’s your book about?” and I say “It’s about a woman who discovers she can invoke ghosts by cooking from dead people’s recipes.” (And if they say “Oooh!”, I do a little tiny happy dance inside.)

    You must pitch. You are always pitching. Not in a mercenary or strident or intrusive way, but talking about your book is always, in a way, pitching it.
    .-= Jael McHenry´s last blog ..wordless wednesday xxxv =-.

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  6. says

    First, congratulations!

    Second, killer post. I keep saying that I need to work on my elevator pitch but I never actually take the time to do so. I’ve spent far too long saying things like, “Well, it’s about a screwed up family who umm, umm, well, there’s a married couple who umm, umm, well, then there is her Dad who is a total nightmare and well, ummm….” Thanks for another kick in the a** to get this pitch down!
    .-= Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist´s last blog ..Back in NYC and more author support =-.

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  7. says

    “So why do so many of us suck at pitching?”

    I’ve never been able to understand how I can feel so passionate about my WIP yet struggle so much to describe it in a single sentence. I think writing the whole first draft of the book itself was easier.

    I’ve been working on this–again–this week, so this post is perfectly timed. Thank you!
    .-= Tracy Hahn-Burkett´s last blog ..“Ten Things Adoptive Parents Shouldn’t Say” =-.

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  8. says

    Fabulous pitching advice! I’ll be pitching in a few weeks — and querying sooner. I’m going to look over my blurb right now with your advice in mind. I’m actually feeling excited about pitching now!

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  9. says

    “Done successfully, they commit theft.”

    LOVE IT.

    How did you manage to make pitching (which is the supreme dread of most writers) sound so dang fun? Well done, and thanks for the great examples. Your book sounds awesome, and I have no doubt your other works will intrigue Hollywood as well.
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..A few fictional Asians =-.

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  10. says

    Great read, and I’m totally onboard. As I write anything, not just fiction, I keep checking that chain O’ constraint to the core premise, theme, ideas, etc.

    Pitches and loglines help tremendously.

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  11. says

    Thanks for this. I’ve got a back matter description that’s three sentences long. As a pitch, it probably needs work :) I think that’s something I haven’t thought about much. I need to start, I think!

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  12. says

    Great advice all around. First off good luck on the projects that are out. Secondly, those tips are greatly appreciated. I am getting to the point of wanting to put together my ‘pitch’ for a new WIP and this is just what I needed to read.

    Thanks!!

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  13. says

    This is fantastic advice! And so obvious when you think about it. As writers we should always be able to give a ‘one liner’ of our WIP. Thanks for this.
    Stella
    A CHILD CHANGES EVERYTHING

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