I have been working on proposals for a couple of new Thieftaker books, and while writing my synopses of the plots, have been thinking about my pitch for the books. It’s been a little while since last we worked on pitches here at MW, and so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about them again.
Your pitch — also known as ‘the elevator pitch” because it’s something you’re supposed to be able to do when you find yourself unexpectedly stuck in an elevator with the agent or editor of your dreams — is a brief summary of the project that a) conveys the basics of what your book is about, and b) grabs your listener’s interest. How brief? REALLY brief. Fifty words might be too long. Anything beyond 50 words is certainly too long. Ideally, if you can get it down to a single sentence, you’re doing really well.
For some people, getting that book description to a single phrase or two is easy. But for many, it’s a struggle. We know our own books so well, that it times it’s hard to figure out which details are worth keeping, and which ones don’t need to be in that final version of the pitch.
In past posts, I have recommended a technique for making those distinctions and shortening our book descriptions accordingly. It basically involves writing a description of the project, then shortening it, shortening it again, and again, and again, until at last you have something that works as a pitch. But while I’ve written about this before, I have never demonstrated it. Today, I will. I’m still working on the pitches for the two new books, so instead I’m going to demonstrate the process using my description of the second Thieftaker book, Thieves’ Quarry (due out from Tor sometime in 2013).
Let’s start with the teaser description of the book that you can find on the D. B. Jackson website:
Autumn has come to New England, and with it a new threat to the city of Boston. British naval ships have sailed into Boston Harbor bearing over a thousand of His Majesty King George III’s soldiers. After a summer of rioting and political unrest, the city is to be occupied.
Ethan Kaille, thieftaker and conjurer, is awakened early in the morning by a staggeringly powerful spell, a dark conjuring of unknown origin. Before long, he is approached by representatives of the Crown. It seems that every man aboard the HMS Graystone has died, though no one knows how or why. They know only that there is no sign of violence or illness. Ethan soon discovers that one soldier — a man who is known to have worked with Ethan’s beautiful and dangerous rival, Sephira Pryce — has escaped the fate of his comrades and is not among the Graystone’s dead. Is he the killer, or is there another conjurer loose in the city, possessed of power sufficient to kill so many with a single dark casting?
Ethan, the missing soldier, and Sephira Pryce and her henchmen all scour the city in search of a stolen treasure which seems to lie at the root of all that is happening. At the same time, though, Boston’s conjurers are under assault from the royal government as well as from the mysterious conjurer. Men are dying. Ethan is beaten, imprisoned, and attacked with dark spells.
And if he fails to unravel the mystery of what befell the Graystone, every conjurer in Boston will be hanged as a witch. Including him.
As you can see, that’s a pretty long description. It’s 264 words, and at that length works very well on the website. But for a pitch, it’s way, way too long. So this next version is shortened considerably to 150 words.
In the fall of 1768, the British Empire is about to occupy Boston in order to subdue the city’s increasingly radical populace. But while the British fleet is anchored in Boston Harbor, one of the ships is attacked by mysterious means. Everyone aboard is killed.
Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker and conjurer, is asked to investigate the attack and soon finds that the one man who escaped the ship’s dark fate is an associate of Ethan’s lovely and dangerous rival, Sephira Pryce. But does this man possess the conjuring power necessary to cast the murderous spell? As Ethan pursues this conjurer and the treasure he is purported to have stolen, he finds himself fighting off Sephira and her men, evading agents of the British Empire, and warding himself from dark spells.
And if he fails to find the killer every conjurer in Boston will be hanged as a witch. Including him.
Compared to the first version, this version eliminates a lot of details. The name of the ship is gone, as are some of the plot twists. But the essence of the book still remains. Unfortunately, we’re still too long.
As British troops prepare to occupy Colonial Boston a mysterious attack on a royal ship leaves everyone aboard dead. Ethan Kaille, thieftaker and conjurer, investigates the attack and soon finds himself fighting off the lovely and dangerous Sephira Pryce, evading agents of the British Empire, and pursuing the dark, powerful conjurer who may have committed these murders.
Either he will succeed, or every conjurer in Boston will be hanged as a witch. Including him.
With this version I was shooting for 75 words and actually got it to 74. Now you can really see the effect of the cutting. Details are gone. We have a truly bare-bones treatment of the plot. But important details remain. It’s still clear that this is historical fantasy with a strong mystery element. It’s still clear that there is more to the tale than just that mystery — we have the political intrigue and the involvement of Sephira Pryce.
Sadly though, this is still too long for the pitch. Let’s see what it looks like at 50 words.
As British troops prepare to occupy Colonial Boston a magical attack on a royal ship kills everyone aboard. Thieftaker Ethan Kaille pursues the murderous conjurer while evading agents of the Empire and his lovely, dangerous rival, Sephira Pryce.
Should he fail every conjurer in Boston will be executed. Including him.
I believe this one is actually better than the last version by far. The language is tighter (by necessity) but we have given up precious little in terms of the information conveyed. We’re close now. In fact, some might say that this is good enough and short enough to use as an elevator pitch. It’s several sentences, but it’s still brief enough to be spoken in about twenty seconds. If you wanted to, you could probably stop here.
But just for fun, let’s take that last step. This final version is a single sentence of 26 words.
Thieftaker Ethan Kaille must find the conjurer responsible for murdering a ship full of British troops, before every spellmaker in Colonial Boston, including himself, is executed.
The best thing about this process is that it leaves you with several synopses of your book: The long version, the final version and intermediate versions of 150, 75, and 50 words. At one point or another you might have uses for all of them, so make sure to save each one.
Okay, so now it’s your turn. We don’t have room in the comments section for this entire process, but I would love to see (and will be happy to comment on) the final version of your pitch. It should be no longer than 50 words. Extra credit if you get it down to one sentence. Good luck!David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net