On Writing and Publishing: Refining Your Elevator Pitch

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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
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71 comments to On Writing and Publishing: Refining Your Elevator Pitch

  • David – Thanks for the concrete examples! These are especially timely, because I need to work out a couple of pitches by the end of this week. I really like your “paring down” technique – it makes intuitive sense and it feeds the “but I can’t leave *this* out” storyteller’s panic in my soul :-)

  • Great exercise in focus David. These are also helpful to keep the writer on target while writing the story. Oftentimes, especially pansters, will get sidetracked and let a minor plot turn take over the story. By having a boiled down synopsis, we can keep ourselves focuses on the target.

    Here is an elevator pitch for a different novel that I am working up.

    “Excalibur has returned to Modern England just in time to help William York protect England from a horde of dragons. With help from the Lady of the Lake, he must overcome a world filled with chaos to unify everyone under one sword, one land, and one king.”

  • Gah! Sorry for the double post. I just realized that I repeated England. So here is an edited version.

    “Excalibur has returned just in time to help William York protect Modern England from a horde of dragons. With help from the Lady of the Lake, he must overcome a world filled with chaos to unify everyone under one sword, one land, and one king.”

  • Thanks, Mindy, and best of luck with your pitches!

    Mark, I like your pitch a lot. My only comment was going to be that you should get rid of the repeat of “England.” But you beat me to it. Otherwise the pitch works very well, conveying plot and concept, and managing to use some evocative language at the end to give your listener a feel for the tone of the project. Well done. I should also note here that, thanks to you, I saw a better way to phrase the final, once sentence version of my pitch. So I’ve edited the post to reflect that and saved myself another three words. Thanks, Mark!

  • David, I won’t play today, I will post this everywhere, for every writer I know and don’t know. EXCELLENT!

  • See, I always have a problem doing these because I feel like I’m distilling them down too far to get them to fifty words or below (and it takes me forever…). I feel like I begin to lose the essence of what I think makes the story unique and they end up sounding much like every other story out there. Still, I think I got my original 103-word pitch I use on my query letter for Rogue 5 down pretty far and still managed to keep things there that I wanted.

    When mercenary captain, Ahlia Jensen, rescues the Battle Suit pilot, Tannen Reece, she has no idea he is a Core government spy. Drawn together by love and a mysterious power, the two must discover the secret of the Alpha Psion before a tyrant plunges the galactic arm into chaos.

    Still not 100% happy with it, but it’s under 50 and I don’t see a good way of taking it further without losing something in the translation. If you wanna see the whole process, it’s on my site. :)

  • [...] In the words of the horse on Ren and Stimpy, no sir, I don’t like ‘em. However, they’re a necessary evil in the writing world. Or perhaps, in my own humble opinion, torture device. What has me blogging today is a post on Magical Words by David B. Coe on Refining Your Elevator Pitch [...]

  • Thanks, Faith!

    Daniel, believe me when I tell you that I understand. This is not at all an easy process. The thing to remember, though, is that the pitch is intended to sell a concept, not a specific plot. Yes, I know that the plot feeds the concept, but agents and editors are looking for something larger. To that end, this looks good, but I would urge you to eliminate two of the three names. A year ago, I did a flash pitch critique session with Harriet McDougal and Brandon Sanderson at JordanCon, and all three of us agreed that too many unfamiliar names in a pitch can kill your chances. You have too many unfamiliar terms and names here. “When mercenary captain Ahlia Jensen rescues a battle ship pilot, she has no idea he is a government spy. Drawn together by love and a mysterious power, the two must discover the secret of [three word general term for Alpha Psion] before a tyrant plunges the galaxy into chaos.” The fact is, while you care about the terms and names, your listener doesn’t. In fact, they are a distraction to him/her. Just a suggestion, obviously, but think about it.

  • Cool. Yeah, I know it’s one of my weaknesses I need to work on and something akin to pulling teeth. ;) Not sure I can find a three word general term for that beasty (Alpha Psion), but I’ll work on it. I figured I needed to use the male protag’s name as well, since he and she are both the focus characters, but if not, that’s good.

    And that was Suit, not ship. ;) He pilots Battle Suits, giant robots with BFGs (Big Friggin’ Guns), not ships. :) I guess if keeping that part can hurt instead of eliciting the question of what one is, I guess I’ll just cut it entirely.

  • D
    great post and examples. I actually think the 26 word one is superb (and makes me want to read the book). I hate doing this myself, often because the process exposes when my plot isn’t sufficiently high concept or punchy, so I would recommend imagining pitching like this even in the developmental stage of the book.

  • Daniel, sorry for getting the detail wrong. I guess my point is that the parsing of these things is far less important than you might think. If you can call Tannen “a battle pilot” without it being GROSSLY inaccurate, do it. You can clean up the details later. Same with Alpha Scion — I’m sure it’s got a lot of back story and such, but at root it must be something that can be easily and briefly described. Sometimes getting the pitch right means compromising. For instance, I never use the word “magic” in the Thieftaker books and stories. It’s an anachronistic term that just doesn’t work — conjurers call themselves conjurers or spellers. Those who fear them call them “witches”. But for the purposes of the 50 word pitch I use the word magic, because it’s easily understood and saves me some space. Compromises helps. And as soon as you have the interest of the pitch-ee, THEN you can explain the finer points. But your first job is to grab their attention, and that can me blurring your terms just a bit.

    A.J., thank you. I think you’re right in saying that this process can be helpful before hand, as a conceptual exercise. I’ve not used it that way myself, but I can see where it would be incredibly useful.

  • Thanks again. :) I surprised myself and came up with, “secret behind an ancient prophecy,” which does nicely in context of the story. :D

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for doing this, David. I love these mini critique sessions :)
    When friends ask what my story is about I mainly answer “It’s a cross between Harry Potter, Narnia and Black Beauty” but I know that won’t work for an editor or agent. So here is my attempt:

    In a faraway world, a vengeful beast hunts a disabled teenage boy named Falcon and his mysterious mustang. Little do they know that they have deep secrets within them – secrets that could save their country. (35 words)

    Thanks again!
    Unicorn

  • Hmm. This was my very first attempt. At 48 words on my initial try, there isn’t a lot to cut.

    They only wanted to rescue the damsel in distress. Now blackmailed into delivering a mysterious cargo, Captain Eben Nash and his crew must avoid “Imperial entanglements” and complete a dangerous rendezvous on an alien world in order to aid their worst enemy — or be forever branded outlaws.

  • Cool, Daniel. That works well.

    Unicorn, this is good. My only concern is that the “they” and “them” in the second sentence are a bit vague. “Little do Falcon and the horse know that they harbor [powerful] secrets [and powers] that could save their country.” The details are yours to fill in, of course, but a change along those lines might make it a little clearer. And shortening the phrasing a bit gives you room to add one of those parenthetical things that might punch up the second half. Hope that helps.

    Wolf, this also is good, but I do think you can shorten it. “Captain Eben Nash and his crew only wanted to rescue the damsel in distress. Now blackmailed into delivering a mysterious cargo, they must rendezvous on an alien world and give aid to their worst enemy — or be forever branded outlaws.” That’s 40 words, and I really don’t think you lose much with the cut. Yes, it might fudge the story details just a little, but as I said to Daniel, that’s all right with the pitch. And frankly, I would avoid the “Imperial entanglements” reference. You risk making it sound like a Star Wars pastiche, which is not necessarily a good thing. If the agent or editor expresses interest and asks for more detail, THEN you can mention that it has elements of the Star Wars story, but to put it in the pitch takes that too far, I think. Best of luck with it.

  • Thanks so much for doing this David! It’s really useful. I started out with three characters and a lot of adjectives, ended up with two characters and very few adjectives. I looked at yours again and tried for the same structure. I worry that it is too sparse, but oh well. Here it is at 24 words!

    Hellfire wielder Mary Kilven must control the fire raging insider her and keep it from the demon Semiramis—or hell is coming to earth.

  • I’ve a few for my projects.

    “The people who run the world economy become obsolete. 1%, meet your machine overlords.” – My last Nano project. Nothing really about the plot, but I think the last sentence is a pretty good hook and tends to hook people.

    “A Seattle barista has some problems with a Mesopotamian demon. Fortunately, she’s got some help from a vampire and a witch.” – My main urban fantasy WIP.

    “My birthday is on December 20th, and the epic party ends up causing the much prophesied end of the world.” – A flash fiction piece. And yes, my birthday is on the 20th of December. I’ll try to make my story come true.

    And, one of my favorite pitches that I heard from someone else. “Shatner! Shatner! Shatner!” It got bought before it was written.

  • Emily, I think that’s almost perfect. It’s short, to the point, and intriguing. My one suggestion would be to replace the name Semiramis with a compelling descriptor of the demon. Yes, some few listeners might place the name, but not all. I couldn’t. And so a key point in your pitch becomes something of a “huh?” moment. Instead use something like “keep it from a vengeful demon” or “an agent of the apocalypse,” or anything else that might be more evocative for listeners or readers as ignorant as I. You have the room — it’s nice and brief. Anyway, just a suggestion. Thanks!

    Roxanne, those are good. I especially like number 1. I’ve never read a pitch for flash fic before, but that’s a pretty good one. Thanks for sharing!

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Nice article, David. I am worse at this than anything else at all.

  • David, it’s so helpful to see the progression of your examples.

    Ok, here’s my pitch:

    An arrogant healer must overcome her own faults when forced to partner with a rival priestess to prevent a temple coup and stop the supernatural forces causing dissention.

  • Megan B.

    What a great exercise. I’ve been working on my synopsis, so I was able to jump right in and cut it down to 33 words. The hardest part is knowing if this will make sense to someone who hasn’t read the longer synopsis…

    “Sadie doesn’t know why rats are following her everywhere, but she knows they saved her life. And with everyone else in the castle dead, she’s the only one left to find the killer.”

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Here’s my current project: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

    Harry Potter for girls with angsty romance.

    Or:

    Rachel Griffin lives in the world of magic, hidden from the eyes of modern mundane society. Thanks to her perfect memory, which allows her to recall what others cannot, she begins to discover that her world of sorcery and enchantment is being manipulated by an even more hidden world…the motives of which she has reason to suspect.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    My favorite blurb for something of mine, by the way, was one that a friend who read the Prospero books in the early days gave it:

    “Neil Gaiman meets C.S. Lewis, or, for an American equivolent, Roger Zelazny meets Lloyd Alexander.”

    I love that one because it describes the mood so perfectly.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Gah! That was terrible. Told you I am horrible at this.

    Let’s stick with Harry Potter for girls with angsty romance. LOL

  • Ok, guess I can’t spell today. That’s “dissension.”

  • Deb S

    Thanks for doing this, David. I’ll give it a go.

    When demons start attacking on Earth, an FBI agent with a knack for seeing otherworldly beings will need magic to stop the invasion, a power various cult and political factions claim she possesses. But awakening that power could alter her allegiance and damn the world in the process.

  • Jagi, thanks for the comments and the pitches. I think the “Harry Potter” version could be very effective with the right listener, but I like the other one as well. I think it starts very well, but needs just a bit of a punch at the end. “Rachel Griffin lives in a realm of sorcery and enchantment, hidden from modern society. And thanks to her perfect memory, which allows her to recall what others cannot, she discovers that her world is being manipulated by a second unseen realm, possessed of powers she cannot fathom.” Or something of the sort. I like the Prospero blurb, and do think that blurbs that reference other series and/or authors can be quite effective. Our pitch for the first Thieftaker book was “Jim Butcher (or Harry Dresden) meets Samuel Adams.”

    E.K., thanks. I like yours but think it would benefit from some tightening. Too many clauses, it seems to me. “A healer must overcome her own arrogance and work with a rival priestess to prevent supernatural forces from taking control of her temple.” I realize that’s not quite the same thing as what you were saying. But I was more concerned with wording. You can make it fit the plot more. The point is to make it flow better and keep it from being too wordy.

    Megan, I thanks for sharing that. I think each of the two sentences works very well, but together they seem slightly disjointed. I don’t think you need to tweak it much, but just a word or two to establish some connection between the rats and the fact that she is alone in a castle with the murderer would be helpful. “Everyone in the castle is dead, except Sadie. She doesn’t know why the rats saved her life, or why they’re following her, but she’s the only one left who can find the killer, and she’ll take whatever help she can get.” Or something of the sort. See the difference?

    Deb, the book sounds intriguing. I believe though, that you can make the pitch a little smoother and briefer simply by eliminating the clause “a power various cult and religious factions…” I don’t think you really need it, and I feel that it muddles the rest, which is very good. Just a suggestion, of course.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    > “Jim Butcher (or Harry Dresden) meets Samuel Adams.”

    He he he. Now I REALLY want to read it.

  • i dont really have a title for this story yet but here goes…..

    Lesson one: don’t lose your bully
    Lesson two: don’t lose your family’s power
    Lesson three: don’t lose your beast or she’ll lose you
    Can Jenna find her missing objects before the blame falls on her or will she get caught in a game of tag with the creatures in woods?

  • “In an alterantive Victorian Londan, a half-vampire coroner has to fight off an invasion from another world.”

    Great post btw- I love seeing how you broke it down!

  • Thank you for being willing to offer crit on pitches. This is the first time I’m throwing mine out for opinion…

    “Ki is a demigod with a choice to make. ‘Yes’ means ritual sex, human sacrifices, and saves humanity. ‘No’ damns humanity to the Underworld Lord.”

  • Thanks, Jagi.

    Latedra, I think what you’ve got here would make an excellent beginning to a teaser for the back of a book. But for a pitch you need to give a bit more of a sense of plot and market. You want your listener to have at least some idea of what the book is about, whether it’s urban fantasy or epic or something else. As I say, what you have here is intriguing and would make a reader pick up the book in a bookstore or buy it from an online seller. But the pitch is more for agents and editors than it is for potential readers.

    Marie, thanks. Glad you liked the post. That is a very good pitch. Nice tone, gives a sense of place and genre. Really very good. But you might want to spell check it… ;)

    Madison, I like this. It’s striking and intriguing. I would cut “and saves humanity” from the first sentence, since it’s sort of implied by the “no” option, so it would read: “Ki is a demigod with a choice to make. ‘Yes’ means ritual sex and human sacrifices. ‘No’ damns humanity to the Underworld Lord.” Thanks for sharing this with us!

  • Harvey buried her berserker powers with her father’s cursed sword, but she’ll have to dig them both up if she’s going to save herself, her kids, and her home town of Buffalo, NY from a brother bent on revenge. (39 wds)

    OR

    The last living Berserkers fight for survival against the Ice Demons on the streets of Buffalo, NY.

    The second one is brief, but I think it sounds too much like a rollicking fun urban fantasy and this book isn’t. It’s darker than that.

  • Julia

    David, thanks for this post and for taking the time to critique our pitches. I really struggle with this, though I’ve often been in situations where I need to give a pithy explanation about the book. I fear that it’s still too long — and that on account of my efforts to shorten it, it doesn’t say anything at all.

    When Alverai hurls himself between Damien and a demon, one thrown knife breaks his country’s taboo against violence-—and one touch shatters his cloistered self-discipline. As he and Damien undertake a deadly gambit to defeat the demon’s master, Alverai finds himself falling in love—-torn between duty to his land and the dictates of his heart.

  • Thanks David! I was nervous to share that. And it took FOREVER to whittle down. I appreciate your suggestion to cut that phrase.

  • Megan B.

    Thanks, David. I was feeling like the sentences were a bit disjointed, and you just confirmed it for me.

    For the person above comparing your book to Harry Potter, I happened upon this today, so I thought I’d share. This advice is basically saying to be careful when comparing your work to HP (you’ll have to scroll down a ways): http://lorariverainsidewriting.blogspot.com/2012/02/excerpt-from-mglitchat-agent-night.html

  • Julia

    Sarah, I love your first pitch! Having read a bit of the manuscript, I think the first version gives a much better indication to the tone of the actual book… Just my two cents. :)

  • Thanks, Julia! I agree, but I wonder if it’s too long.

    Oh, and Thank you, David for doing this! It’s immensely helpful.

  • Thanks David, I see what you mean!

  • Sarah, I like the first version very much. I agree that the second is a little too sparse. But I would suggest that you get rid of the reference to Buffalo at the end. Yes, it’s nice to place books in their setting with some pitches, but in this case I think it hurts more than helps. As phrased, it makes the stakes for your hero and your plot seem a bit too small. My initial response is, “Really? Just Buffalo?” Your readers and listeners will care more and be more drawn to the concept if the stakes are higher, if what’s being threatened is the world as we know it or something of the sort, or even take out the Buffalo reference and give us the number of people at stake. As I say, I like it very much. It’s brief, evocative, intriguing. But make it “…to save herself, her kids, and a quarter of a million others [or "the rest of the world"]…” and it feels weightier.

    Julia, thanks for the kind comment. It’s my pleasure. What you’ve got is good, in that it conveys tension and some sense of subgenre (Epic fantasy, right?). But I do think you can shorten it more: “With one knife thrown to protect a friend from a demon, Alverai breaks his country’s taboo against violence and plunges his life into turmoil. Undertaking a deadly gambit to defeat the demon’s master, he finds himself torn between duty to his land and the needs of his heart.” This is under 50 words. It leaves out Damien, but for a pitch, you should really focus on the single protagonist and his/her main problem. Obviously you should reword what I’ve written if it’s not right for the story, but that would be the general approach I would take to shortening it.

    Madison, you’re welcome!

    Megan, glad to help. Thanks for that link.

    Sarah, no problem!

    E.K., good! Glad to help.

  • Ok David, how about this.

    Jenna has everything a warewolf princess could want, her own house, the twins, a misbehaving beast, two boyfriends she cant get rid of, an attacker in the woods she cant see and one she can and the losing of time before the founding families powers end up in THEIR hands.

    This is kinda fun. I think i’ll keep working on it.

  • Razziecat

    Not going to play this time, but just want to Sarah, I really want to read your book because I live there! Although I’m sure Harvey must have won–we haven’t had any Ice Demons this winter… ;)

  • Latedra, that’s MUCH better, and much closer to what a pitch should look like. I would shorten it a bit, maybe remove one or two of the things in her list. And I would rewrite that last clause for clarity. I’m not sure I understand it. “Jenna has everything a warewolf princess could want, her own house, the twins, a misbehaving beast, and two boyfriends she cant get rid of. But out in the woods lurks an enemy she can’t see, and [here put in a rewrite of the last clause as the kicker that hooks your listener].” That’s how I would approach it. Again, just a suggestion.

  • And Razz’s comment shows the value of mentioning the locale. Thing is, it’s great for a back-of-the-book teaser. Less so for a pitch

  • adamgaylord

    I hope I’m not too late. Here’s mine:

    “When an oppressed populace transforms the gladiator-slave Sol into a symbol of defiance, the Empire sends its most ruthless assassin to end the insurgence. Sol’s only chance is to do what no slave has ever done: escape the coliseum and the only home he’s ever known.” (46 words)

  • This, I know will be one of the toughest things for my book.

    “Her family assassinated, Princess Candia West must overcome a civil war. If she doesn’t, even her mysterious allies won’t save the kingdom from darkness.”

    It is so hard because the book has sever points of view each with their own story forming part of the larger story. But I think the above sums it up in 24 words. It is fun though, to start with a long description and then cuts words and pick better ones.

  • Adam, I think you’ve pretty much nailed that one. You convey setting, give a sense of the conflict, and do so briefly and in a way that hooks your listener/reader. Well done.

    John, I like yours, too. I wonder though, is she overcoming the civil war, or preventing it, or doing something else. That one word is a bit vague and made me hesitate as I read it. Otherwise, I like it. And yeah, as hard as this process can be, it also can be a lot of fun. Thanks!

  • adamgaylord

    Wow, thanks David! A great post and a wonderful exercise. Thanks for the feedback!

  • Chiming in late, myself. This took way too long to write, mostly because I kept getting caught up in what I thought were vital details that couldn’t be discarded. Like the magic. But here’s the most important bits at 41 words:

    When Janni, once the princess of the realm and now believed dead, meets a fugitive nobleman seeking to overthrow the usurper who tried to kill her, she must choose between the quiet life she’s crafted and the country that needs her.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks a lot, David, that makes it loads better. “In a faraway world, a vengeful beast hunts a disabled teenage boy named Falcon and his mysterious mustang. Little do Falcon and the horse know that they harbour secret powers that could save their country.”
    Thanks again
    Unicorn

  • TwilightHero

    When his long-lost sister returns as a dreaded soldier-mage, a Reaver, Damen finds he has powers of his own. Now, as they defy inhuman pursuers to warn her masters of armies gathering, he must come to terms with those powers, and a future as a Reaver himself. (47 words)

    I join the crowd in saying: this took waaaay too long to write. A previous post inspired me to make a 134-word summary I saved and forgot about once satisfied. Even with that as a base, extracting this took ages. I know exactly what you meant in your second response to Daniel; I also dislike the word magic or other words derived thereof. I call empowered people spellcrafters or just crafters, for short…but one is long and the other ambiguous without context. ‘Mage’ kept the description for a Reaver at less than four syllables.

    Thanks for doing this, by the way. I too love these mini-critiquing things :)

  • [...] today regarding pitches. David B. Coe (published with Tor – fantasy genre) was offering pitch crit today at Magical Words blog. I sent mine over and was thrilled when he returned the feedback. All of the comments are worth [...]

  • Adam, my pleasure.

    Laura, I like that very much. Intriguing, evocative of tone and setting. You do a nice job of conveying in just forty words the twists and turns of your plot. Good job. Because as you say, this is not easy.

    Unicorn, glad to help. I think that shorter version does work much better.

    TwiRo (kind of like J-Lo, only different….), these do take a long time. My post took me a long, long time to write — far longer than usual. And I’ve been thinking about this stuff for quite a while. None of this is easy, but it is, I believe, incredibly useful. As to your pitch, I think you’ve got a good start here, but I think it could be tightened up just a little: “When his long-lost sister returns as a dreaded soldier-mage, a Reaver, Damen finds he has powers of his own. Now, pursued by [demons? dark creatures? vile servants of evil?], he must come to terms with those powers, and with a dark, uncertain future.” Or some such. The details about the masters and the gathering armies, I think, muddy the waters. Save those details for when the agent says, “Oh, I like that. Tell me more.” And the phrase “Reaver himself” didn’t do much for me (again, of course, this is just one person’s opinion). Anyway, just a suggestion, but the larger points are a) this is very close to being very good, and b) it needs to be tightened just a bit. Thanks!

  • This whole thing has been really helpful. I ended up doing a full restructuring on the thing and got it down to 43 words that sound pretty decent. And now to start trying to memorize the thing. ;)

  • Thanks, David. This was a great help. I just have to remember when writing these that what the main character considers “most important” is not necessarily what is most important to the story.

  • That’s great, Daniel. Glad it was helpful.

    Laura, it’s my pleasure. I think that the thing to remember is that the things that are most important to the characters and the story and even the writer, are not necessarily most important to the people who will be marketing you and the book.

  • LOL!!! Thanks David- that’s called what happened when someone (aka me) is trying to sneak post while at work! WOW! Great spelling there on my part ;)

  • Dakota

    Talom must discover the origins of the mysterious Word to reverse a curse, cast by a petty and spiteful god, that mixed the languages of his kingdom’s people. Spared from the god’s spell, Talom, armed only with an ancient and enigmatic Construct, must either succeed, or watch his kingdom fall.

    Jeez. This is harder than it seems like it should be.

    Is the phrasing awkward? It was a struggle to get down to 50.

  • No problem, Marie!

    Dakota, yeah, it’s really hard! This is good, but I do think it needs a bit of tightening and polishing. “Talom must discover the origins of the mysterious Word to reverse a curse cast by a petty and spiteful god. Armed only with an ancient and enigmatic Construct, Talom must either [?overcome the deity's spell] or watch his kingdom fall.” As I’ve said to others, sometimes you need to sacrifice complete accuracy in your description in order to keep things simple and clear. Obviously you’ll use your own wording (particularly in that parenthetical spot) but I was just trying to show places where I would cut it down. Hope this helps a bit.

  • TwilightHero

    Hmmm, I see your point. Without a better idea of the stigma Reavers bear – dark history, responsible for the deaths of thousands – the last bit doesn’t carry as much impact as I’d like.

    When his long-lost sister returns as a dreaded soldier-mage, a Reaver, Damen finds he has powers of his own. Now, pursued by monsters that were once men, he must come to terms with those powers and a dark, uncertain future.

    Wasn’t sure how to describe my ‘pursuers’, but this seems all right. And your suggested ending sums things up in three words. I bow to the master :) Thanks again!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Okay, probably too late for critique, but I finally got a version down to under 50 words (and so many Thank Yous for the example string of how to pair down a longer synopsis).

    When the resistance murders his brethren Kingsguardsmen to strike a blow against the barbarian Queen who rules in the King’s name, Jhohann must choose between his loyalty to the law and the dark Queen’s seduction, while Lailah joins the resistance only to be confronted by secrets on both sides.

  • Unicorn

    Megan B – sorry, only read your comment now. Thanks a lot for that – it makes sense now that I think about it.
    Unicorn

  • TwiRo, yes that looks much better. Good job. Glad to have been of some help.

    Hep, I figured showing that process might be helpful for some folks. Good to know it helped you. I think your pitch is good, but could be tighter. I believe the part about Lailah is too much of a non sequitur given the rest of the pitch. I would cut it completely. Leave that for when you’re asked for more information. I would also put Jhohann’s name up front — too much comes between the clause and the name. “When the resistance murders Jhohann’s brethren guardsmen to strike a blow against the barbarian Queen, Jhohann must choose between his loyalty to the law and the dark Queen’s seduction.” The detail about the Queen ruling in the king’s name probably makes a world of difference in the book. It’s not important here. Same with the term “Kingsguardsmen.” Fine for the book; too much of a mouthful here. But I would add some sort of descriptor for “the resistance,” (since now you have room) to make it sound a bit more intriguing. Only my opinion, of course. But that would be my advice.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you so much for the comments. I included the bit about Lailah because I wanted to maintain *some* sense that the story is larger than just the bit focused on Jhohann (two other primary POV characters), but I think your suggestion to add a bit more description to “the resistance” could also serve to do that. Good things to play around with. Thank you.

  • sagablessed

    When a plague of unexplained comas strikes in Massachusetts, including his nephew’s girlfriend, David uses his powers as a shaman to uncover the truth behind them. Despite problems from best friend’s daughter and his dead lover, David must defeat the oncoming disaster, or the whole world will die.

    48 words, 2 sentences. Any feed back welcome. And thank you for posting this, David. I had never thought about it before, but I guess you are correct. Every published author or editor I have listened to has said pretty much the same thing, but never as succinctly as this.

  • sagablessed

    I did leave out ‘his’ in ‘his best friend’s daughter’. My bad, and makes it 49 words, in two sentences.

  • [...] down to 25 words, here’s a great link from David B. Coe (fantasy author published by Tor): http://www.magicalwords.net/david-b-coe/on-writing-and-publishing-refining-your-elevator-pitch/ He took pitches one day and gave feedback to a bunch of us. Share [...]

  • I’ve had a busy week, so I haven’t gotten around to responding yet, but I thought I’d point out that I was at that pitch session that David mentioned above with Brandon Sanderson and Harriet McDougal. And I pitched my current WIP. (At the time, it was in a very early stage of development… mostly the idea stage. Then things got busy with school, and then finally I graduated, and now I’m about to start the actual first draft after finishing a detailed outline.)

    My pitch then went like this:

    “It’s Final Fantasy meets Mad Max. Magic is dead, leaving a vast wasteland. Haunted by the brutal execution of her father, Isa leaves her village at the edge of the wastes to explore the forbidden, monolithic remains of an ancient weapon, where the ghosts of a long-forgotten war still linger. But a band of scavengers looking for leftover magic abducts her, and she finds herself pulled into a struggle for power in the last great city that threatens to reignite that ancient war and destroy what little remains of her fragile world.”

    I got dinged for the Final Fantasy reference (because many editors, like Harriet, wouldn’t know what that was), and the use of the “blank meets blank” format, and for the length (it’s about 90 words).

    Here’s a shorter version (47 words and one sentence) that I’ve more recently come up with:

    “Fleeing a marriage she doesn’t want, Isavela is kidnapped by sky pirates and caught in the political machinations of the last great city, where she must join forces with the ghost of a long dead war machine and master ancient magic to prevent the apocalypse from reoccurring.”

    It’s hard to know which details are relevant and which will form a stronger hook. I think the “magic is dead” line is a pretty good hook. But this newer version focuses more on the plot and the main character. I’m also trying to preserve the flavor combination of “steampunk”, “post-apocalyptic” and “epic fantasy” that are part of the story.

    Thoughts? I’m all ears. :)

  • Glad to help, Hep.

    Saga, thanks for the comment. This is an easy aspect of the process to overlook. But once it’s time to sell our latest work, it does become crucial. Your pitch is good, but I think it needs to be tightened up in certain ways. It’s good that you don’t overwhelm your listener with unfamiliar names, but because of this you’re forced to talk about people in a way that is a little confusing: “his nephew’s girlfriend,” “his best friend’s daughter,” “his dead lover.” That may not seem like a lot, but those three descriptions account for 10 of your 49 words — 20%! That’s too much. “When a plague of unexplained comas strikes Massachusetts, David uses his powers as a shaman to uncover the truth behind them. [Despite problems from his best friend’s daughter and his dead lover,] David must defeat the oncoming disaster, or the whole world will die.” As you can see, I would suggest cutting the “nephew’s girlfriend” reference, as it’s too obscure to really be important. I’m sure it is to David, but not to the editor or agent listening to your pitch. And I would also suggest cutting the part that I’ve put in brackets and replacing it with a more specific plot twist. “problems from his best friend’s daughter and his dead lover” is too vague. Make it more solid, more ominous. Just my suggestions, of course. You have to make it read as you want it to.

    Stephen, I remember your pitch, and I think it’s fair to say that just about everyone who went got dinged at least a little, and you got some praise, too. Don’t sell yourself short. As for the 47 word version: I think it’s good. I do like the steam-punk feel. I would suggest that you consider making it two sentences. I know that I urge people in my most to get it down to one, but at this length, with this many plot threads to convey, I think your one sentence feels overloaded. Better to make it two sentences that are easier to follow: “Fleeing a marriage she doesn’t want, Isavela is kidnapped by sky pirates and caught in the political machinations of the last great city. She must join forces with the ghost of a long dead war machine and master ancient magic to prevent the apocalypse from reoccurring.” Otherwise I think it’s quite good.

  • Thanks, David.

    Yes, I recall that I did get some praise as well. :) Enough that I still use the original pitch as my guiding log line, throughout the development process. I check back with it often to make sure I’m hitting the points I was aiming for.

    For the newer, shorter version, I was struggling with the unwieldy sentence length. It was too long, and I knew it. Thanks.

  • sagablessed

    David: I really appreciate the help here. Blessings for this help.