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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 [1].

About J.C. Hutchins [2]

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.