**This Lesson is part of the January series “30 Pitch Lessons – 30 Days.” Pitch University Pitchfest weeks and Expert-In-Residence weeks kick off the 1st full week in February.**
Vicky Dreiling is the best of both worlds: Marketing Gal by day and Story Spinner by night. Having both areas of expertise to draw on, allows her to see the invisible links of how story feeds pitch and how pitch idea inspires story.
She holds degrees in English literature and marketing and is passionate about both. Her debut novel, How To Mary a Duke was released just a few days ago! Everything she's learned in both worlds is now out for the world to see.
Refining Your Premise First
One reason many writers have trouble with pitches (and queries) is because they have yet to refine the premise of their novels. The premise is a concise statement of the primary plot of your book. Essentially the premise answers the following question at a high level: What is your story about?
How do you create or refine a premise for your novel?
Start with a logline. In his screenwriting book SAVE THE CAT!, the late Blake Snyder describes a log line as a one-line sentence that a) summarizes the plot and b) creates excitement about the story. That brings to mind the elements that define a High Concept premise:
- An ironic, funny or provocative twist on a classic plot
- Immediately understood (test it on friends who don’t know anything about your story)
- Clear tone
- A great title
- Widespread appeal (the target market, in this case the readership, is clear)
A novel, regardless of genre, doesn’t necessarily have to contain a High Concept premise to become a hit. Usually, these novels are differentiated by the unforgettable characters. We all know the starring characters are the main attraction. Great characterization taps into universal experiences and the accompanying emotional reactions. Obviously, a High Concept premise plus unforgettable characters will give your novel even more potential in a competitive market.
To learn how to create a log line, practice with well-known films. Here are a couple of log lines I created from popular movies:
- A cold businessman falls in love with a warm-hearted hooker he hires to be his date for a week in PRETTY WOMAN.
- A female editor blackmails her male assistant into a faux engagement to prevent her deportation in THE PROPOSAL.
Knowing your log line can be advantageous if you’re ever in a situation outside a formal pitch where an editor or agent asks about your book. This happened to me. At a conference dinner, an agent asked me what my book was about. I replied: “It’s the Bachelor in Regency England (minus the hot tub and camera crew).” She whipped out her card and asked me to send her the book.
The pitch was conversational because of the informal setting, but the agent ‘got’ the high concept immediately. I signed with that agent and sold my historical romance HOW TO MARRY A DUKE in a three-book deal. Scouts, be prepared!
The Elevator Pitch
A slightly different method of describing the premise involves the two-line Elevator Pitch.
In Michael Chase Walker’s POWER SCREENWRITING: THE 12 STAGES OF STORY DEVELOPMENT, he recommends starting your premise with the Inciting Incident. The Inciting Incident is an event at the beginning of the novel that propels your hero and/or heroine into action. To get there, you start with one word: When.
Use the Inciting Incident to create the two-line Elevator Pitch. Here is a two-line elevator pitch for HOW TO MARRY A DUKE:
When an ambitious matchmaker agrees to find a bride for an unromantic duke, she arranges a notorious courtship with twenty-four of England’s most eligible belles. But she never dreams she’s met her own lovematch in HOW TO MARRY A DUKE, a Regency-era version of TV’s The Bachelor.
In most cases, you’ll need to pitch far more than one or two lines. At the beginning of the pitch session, state the following: the book is complete, the word count, the target market, and the title. For example: I have a complete, 95,000 word Regency historical romance entitled HOW TO MARRY A DUKE.
Juggling Query Letter and Verbal Pitch
The following is the summary for my debut novel that I included in queries and cover letters:
Before the twenty-first century and bachelor reality shows, there lived a spinster matchmaker, a bachelor duke, and twenty-four of the ton’s most celebrated single beauties. In 1816 London, the competition is on (minus the hot tub and camera crew) as Tessa Mansfield agrees to make a match for Tristan Gatewick, the Duke of Shelbourne. In her quest to find Tristan his ideal, respectable duchess, Tessa sets out to teach him lessons in love. The unthinkable happens when she falls in love with Tristan, for she has a ruinous secret, and he is honor-bound to marry one of his bridal candidates.When Tessa’s scandalous past threatens both of them, her knight in ducal armor defies all of society and teaches her the real meaning of honor by offering her his heart.
Let’s deconstruct that 5-sentence summary for HOW TO MARRY A DUKE.
- The first sentence quickly sets up the High Concept bachelor premise, the fairy-tale quality of the book, and identifies the players at a high level.
- The second sentence depicts the setting, identifies the shared goal of the hero and heroine, and establishes the underlying classic romance plot: the matchmaker.
- The third sentence further refines the heroine’s goal to reform the hero.
- In the fourth and fifth sentences, the primary conflicts are outlined.
- Notably, the fifth sentence identifies the major theme of the book.
With an in-person pitch, you’ll want to be as conversational as possible and leave sufficient time for Q&A with the agent/editor.
I don’t recall what I actually said during pitches, but here is my attempt to write what I might have said:
The premise of my book is the Bachelor in Regency England (minus the hot tub and camera crew). When Miss Tessa Mansfield, a spirited matchmaker, agrees to find Tristan, the Duke of Shelbourne a bride, she’s horrified by his bridal requirements. The man only wants to marry to beget the obligatory heir and spare. He doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body. But Tessa sees an opportunity to further her career by making the match of the century. She’s determined to bring him true love. But during the crazy courtship, she falls in love with Tristan. Their growing attraction is forbidden because he’s honor bound to marry one of the twenty-four bridal candidates, and Tessa has a ruinous secret. But when her scandalous past threatens, Tristan shows her the real meaning of honor by offering his heart.
Once you finish the pitch, the agent or editor will likely ask questions. Here are some questions that agents asked me, followed by my responses.
Agent 1: “Do the bachelorettes live in a special house like the TV show?”
Me: “No, the society matrons would never have let their daughters live with only a matchmaker as a chaperone. By the way, the girls are called bridal candidates.”
Agent 1: “You said there is no hot tub, but what about a waterfall?”
Me: “Well, most of the book takes place in London, but when they go to the country, I guess they could splash their toes at the lake.”
Agent 2: “Is that (the premise) historically accurate?”
Me: “I view historical romances as fantasies with larger than life characters and situations. I’ve researched the Regency period extensively and toured famous Regency landmarks in the UK. Also, I made sure that the courtship events were in line with Regency-era proprieties.”
Agent 3: “Whose book is this?”
Me: (Momentarily dumbfounded as I thought of it as both their stories).
Agent 3: “Usually one or the other has the most to lose and the most growth in the book.”
Me: “The heroine has the most to lose.” (Privately thinking it’s not that cut and dried in my book.)
Agent 4: So my partner already requested the entire manuscript from a contest.”
Me: “Yes, I found out after I made the appointment. I tried three times to cancel, but the coordinators couldn’t get it straight. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather take a break?”
Agent 4: “No, tell me about the book.”
Me: I rattle off the pitch. Then I say, “I really appreciated that contest win. I won the grand prize – the conference fee to the RWA conference. I already sent the manuscript to your partner.”
Agent 4: “I might steal it off her desk.”
Using Both Sides of Your Brain
Many writers find crafting pitches (and queries) difficult because of the skill differences between writing a novel and creating what is essentially marketing material.
As a marketing professional, I had the opposite problem of most writers. I had trouble turning off the marketing side of my brain and switching to the creative side, the one necessary to write the story. What works for me is writing to music. I'm like Pavlov's dog. The minute I crank up my iPOD, I'm in the creative zone. Another way to trick your brain into moving from one skill set to the other is to imagine you’re switching from your creative hat to your marketing hat.
Beyond the pitch, learning to use the marketing side of your brain is critical to a writer's career. Once you secure representation from an agent, she will likely ask you to supply thumbnail sketches for proposed follow-up books (these are concise descriptions such as the 5-sentence pitch for my book). After the sale, your publisher will request marketing copy for various venues such as fan magazines and dear reader letters. Often, you have to turn this copy around fairly quickly, so learning that marketing skill set before you sell is a huge advantage.
Do you have special ways of switching from the creative to the marketing side of your brain? What do you find most difficult about crafting a pitch for your novel? What is the easiest part?
Vicky Dreiling’s debut historical romance HOW TO MARRYA DUKE has garnered rave reviews and is available now. HOW TO SEDUCE A SCOUNDREL is slated for publication in July 2011. For additional information about Vicky and her novels, visit herwebsite: http://www.vickydreiling.com