Amber Morn
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

Creating a Pitch for Your Novel

If you’re attending the ACFW conference this month, or if you’re querying agents, you may be struggling with how to create a pitch for your story. The guidelines below can help.

First, remember that a pitch is a hook. It has one goal only: to make the editor (or agent) at the conference want to know more about your story. Just as a chapter hook makes the reader turn the page, your pitch hook makes the editor ask a follow-up question. (Sometimes editors will ask a follow-up question simply to be polite. The trick is making them ask a question because they really are curious about the answer.)

Therefore, a pitch doesn’t have to cover lots of information about your story. On the contrary, it should be concise. And it shouldn’t focus on theme. It should focus on specifics in your premise that will place questions in the editor’s mind.

You have to put yourself in the shoes of the editor, who’s heard a million pitches. What will make this editor want to know more about your story? Certainly not generalities. Nor themes. These things don’t lead to specific questions. Besides, all generalities and themes have been done before. The editor will think, “Ho-hum.” You need to give him something fresh.

Let’s look at examples from my one of my suspense novels, Violet Dawn. First, a generalized pitch:

A lonely young woman runs from her dangerous past only to come face-to-face with murder.

Boring. There’s nothing fresh here. Nothing that’s going to make the editor want to know more. How many books are about people running from their pasts? How many books have a protagonist mixed up in murder?

Okay, so let’s try a theme-based pitch:

A lonely young woman—who’s running from her dangerous past and becomes mixed up in murder—learns how to build a family.

Even more boring. First, the reasons stated above apply. Second, the “learns” part actually diminishes the painful past and murder elements. I’ve just skimmed over the major conflicts to make everything all neat and tidy.

Now, here’s a specific pitch based solely on the premise. One designed to make the editor ask a follow-up question:

A young woman running from her dangerous past discovers the body of an aged movie star in her hot tub--and can’t call the police.

This pitch would likely place two questions in the editor’s mind. One—why can’t she call the police? Two—if she can’t tell police about the body, what’s she going to do about it?

If I were pitching this at a conference, I’d have responses ready for those two follow-up questions. I wouldn’t design the responses to fully answer the questions. Rather, I’d design each response to give a partial answer, with another hook. (Note: your response to a follow-up question can be longer than your original pitch. But still be as concise as possible.)

Editor question #1: “Why can’t she call the police?”

Response: “She doesn’t trust the police to believe in her innocence. And this crime will bring national media. She can’t have her face plastered on the news—because the people she’s running from will find her.” (Inherent hooks: Well, who’s she running from? What happened in her past?)

Editor question #2: “So what does she do about the body?”

Response: (I would tell the editor, but choose not to reveal the answer in this article—spoiler for those who haven’t read my book but will.)

If you’re not attending a conference but you’re preparing a query letter to an agent, create your basic pitch in the same way. In this case, you’re hooking the agent to read on—with the goal of prompting her to ask you to submit part or all of the manuscript. You can put this pitch in the very first sentence of your query. I went further years ago when I was looking for an agent. I bolded and centered the pitch right after the salutation. Sometimes I even put a box around it. That way, in one second, the agent would know the gist of my story—and, I hoped, be hooked. Querying a list of agents can often lead to only a small percentage of requests for more of the manuscript. But this method of developing a compelling, concise pitch and putting it right at the top resulted in over 50 percent positive response for me. Ultimately I landed with the agent of my choice.