A pitch sounds like such a simple thing, doesn’t it?
Just a few sentences describing what your novel is, essentially, about.
If only it were that easy.
Synopses are hard enough, giving us the challenge of
condensing tens of thousands of words into one or two pages, complete with all
major characters and plot threads, but I maintain that pitches are harder. The
difficulty is all in that word up there: ‘essentially’. Somehow we have to
submit our story to filtration, fermentation, distillation, whatever arcane
chemistry we can think of, to reveal its ‘essence’.
There are no shortcuts here, it has to be done. The
pitch is crucially important.
I know this because I recently finished a novel with
which I was very pleased. It was one of those in which the story just seemed to
flow from fingers to screen. In just a few months I had a complete draft and –
get this – there was nothing I was unhappy about, no nagging feeling that it
wasn’t quite right.
So I sent it to my Agent. She came back to me saying
she’d tried to read it but couldn’t get into it. She didn’t like the
characters. She’d given up. Ouch.
With hindsight, her reaction was not surprising. My
protagonist spends 40% of the novel feeling suicidally depressed and 50% being
evil. Love and redemption come, eventually, in the final two chapters.
You may be wondering why I would write a story like
that. Well, I could say that this book is part of a series, so the reader will
be already familiar with and sympathetic to the main character, but no, that
would be making excuses. In my view, every book has to stand alone.
The fact is, I never intended the reader to
particularly like the characters. I wanted them to recognise that their
behaviour was wrong, was deviant, and hate them for it. Why? Because the whole
theme of the story was about placing people in an inhuman situation, manipulating
them to despicable acts, and investigating whether they could regain their empathy
and humanity. It was intended to portray a dystopian society from which my
characters need to extricate themselves.
Did I make that clear to my Agent when I sent her
the book? No. I had labelled it as science fiction, as a story about a cyborg
spy whose mission to another planet goes awry. In my pitch I failed to get
across the essence of the story, allowing her to start into the book expecting
one type of story and getting another. I had failed to manage her expectations.
The last thing an aspiring author needs is a
disappointed reader. It is when readers assume things about the nature of our
books, and then discover that their assumptions were unfounded, that we get
those one- and two- star reviews.
This is why the pitch is so important – it is our
only tool to manage the expectations of the reader (or Agent or Publisher) so
that they are mentally prepared for the type of story we are giving them. If it
is a thematic story, they should be reading with that in mind, looking for the
underlying theme and delighting when they find it. If they are not supposed to
like the characters, they need to know that, and we need to offer them
something else instead – some point of interest to keep them involved with the
I could go on, there is so much more to say on the subject of
pitches. I’ll be back…