It goes without saying that people hate writing query letters. Loathe! Abhor! Hiss! Some authors feel it is simply beneath their dignity to have to distill the wondrous complexity of their novel to a brief excerpt.
But as has been chronicled in the past on this blog: authors have to summarize their work. Often. Repeatedly. In a wildly diverse array of settings. So much that you start to hate your own book. Okay, not that much. But close!
You have to learn to pitch
Summarizing your work is part of the job description of being an author. You signed up for it the minute you typed “Chapter 1.” (And yes, literary fiction types, you don’t get to sail through on “oh man it’s so complicated but it’s really all about the writing”. You have to pitch too!). Whether it’s pitching a project to an editor, for film, in interviews, in everyday conversation: you’ll basically spend about as much time summarizing and talking about your work as you did writing it.
And yet different situations call for different length of pitches. A query is basically a two paragraph pitch with some query-related detail. But sometimes you’ll want to use a one sentence pitch (for a bio, if you’re into that whole brevity thing), or a one paragraph pitch (for briefly describing in real life conversation when you don’t want someone’s eyes to glaze over).
My feeling: get it all out of the way at once. Save yourself the headache and come up with a one sentence, one paragraph, and two paragraph pitch before you even start to query. Then: practice and memorize your pitches. You never know when you’re going to need them.
Start with the one-sentence pitch
I personally think the best way of going about this is to start with the one sentence pitch: not only is it the hardest to write, it contains the essence of your book. It’s the most crucial arc of your story, with all the other details stripped away – even, sometimes, character names. It can be painful to whittle it down (I don’t even mention the key villain in mine), but utterly, utterly necessary.
Here’s a post dedicated to the one-sentence pitch if you need some help.
You then build around that one sentence pitch and flesh it out with some key details in the one paragraph pitch – maybe the character names, or the most important subplot, or a few quick images that give a sense of the sensibility of your work.
With the two paragraph you have more flexibility to add still more details and can make it a bit more of a story itself.
I did this for Jacob Wonderbar. Here are my pitches (which I have to use very very often):
One sentence pitch
Three kids trade a corndog for a spaceship, blast off into space, accidentally break the universe, and have to find their way back home.
One paragraph pitch
Jacob Wonderbar trades a corndog for a sassy spaceship and blasts off into space with his best friends, Sarah and Dexter. After they accidentally break the universe in a giant space kapow, a nefarious space pirate named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath. They have to work together to make it back to their street on Earth where all the houses look the same.
Two paragraph pitch
Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home. He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled.
But when the trio meets a mysterious man in silver they trade a corn dog for his sassy spaceship and blast off into the great unknown. That is, until they break the universe in a giant space kapow and a nefarious space buccaneer named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath. The friends have to work together to make it back to their little street where the houses look the same, even as Earth seems farther and farther away.
And you know? There’s no time like the present! It would be great to have more examples of these different types of pitches: Feel free to share your one sentence, one paragraph and two paragraph pitches in the comment section!
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February Grace says
Since this is still going…(and thanks to the brave people posting their work, really helps a lot!)
One Sentence: A woman wakes up to find herself trapped in the quintessential American soap opera town and must find a way to write herself out of it.
Alyson Greene says
Should the one-sentence-pitch be more about the catalyst of the story or the main conflict? Yours, amazingly, seems to have both (I'm guessing) with the corn-dog trade as the catalyst and the finding their way home as the main conflict.
Is it ok to describe the situation the MC is in without saying what choices they have? It's so difficult to balance the level of detail to put in one sentence.
Too much detail and it's a gobblety-gook of a run-on sentence. Not enough detail and it sounds like a vague, cheesy movie trailer.
Here's what I got so far, but I think it's too vague:
A hot-tempered teenage girl has super-powers that she can’t remember and she battles her childhood friends to uncover the truth about herself.
Heather Choate says
When a sassy angel is hauled halo-first to hell, her fascination with an angel of light clashes with seductions of demons, and she finds herself in a world where some desires are paid for with your soul.
That "book" sounds like the stupidest. most inane piece of crap I can imagine. I can only assume its for kids or YA, if so, I will say that it takes an especially untalented writer to insult the intelligence of that segment, but it seems you've managed to do it in spades.
Nathan Bransford says
Haha… Here I thought I'd have to wait for my book to come out to get my first bad review. Tha you, Internet. Thank you.
"A Confederate nurse-turned-vampire struggles to retain her humanity."
Thanks for the prompt.
Emily Casey says
I just got back from the Pennwriters Conference where author CJ Lyons helped us craft pitches that were 25 words, 15 words, and *gulp* 5 words. My short one-sentence pitch is:
A ghost comes back from the dead to save the girl he loves.
She said the goal was to use words that immediately create an image and/or emotion.
Surly Jason says
I'm a late comer to this game, but still wanna play:
In a world where a tiny fraction of people can read the thoughts of others, a Psi-kick detective discovers that he’s been pulled into a conspiracy that will kill everyone who’s not Psi-kick, and usher in a new world of peace and understanding build on a foundation of genocide.
Peter Elliot is happy as a police detective. As a one of the very small part of the population who hears the thoughts and memories of people around him, the mandate that Psi-kicks work for the government tastes like repression, but he would choose to do nothing else. Upon investigating a series of kidnappings, Peter begins to uncover a conspiracy. The missing children are part of a pattern of Norms and Psi-kicks taken and experimented upon by one of his own—a Psi-kick who believes that the eradication of all the Norms will lead to a Psi-kick utopia built upon a foundation of genocide.
When a very small part of the population was verified to hear every thought, memory, and secret of people around them, laws were made to mandate that Psi-kicks work for the government. Though Peter Elliot enjoys police work, the restrictions tastes like repression
Upon investigating a series of kidnappings, Peter begins to uncover a conspiracy where both Psi-kicks and Norms are being experimented upon. Not all Psi-kicks accept their regulation to government service or being feared by society, and one Psi-kick has decided that a world where everyone can hear the thoughts, pains, and fears of others would be a utopia that is worth killing 99% of the population to achieve.
I feel like a tool even asking, but does the two-paragraph have to be two? Can you use three paragraphs for the same purposes or is this frowned upon?
Funny how we come across what we need in our time of need, I have been struggling with writing the one sentence pitch and here is mine.
The last person Jon Murray expected was his estranged wife, Sabine Schneider (government-paid assassin), but when he looks up from the podium before announcing a run for the White House, their eyes lock and he can feel the familiar ache to wrap his hands around her neck.
I have found the whole query-writing process to be extremely challenging, but not in a bad way. It has really made me look more closely at my novels and what the heck they're really about, at their core.
And I just formed a one-sentence summary of my novel the other day, and that was a challenge in and of itself. But I was advised to do it before tackling a revision of my synopsis. So…yeah, it's a great challenge! And I do believe it makes the writer really look at their work and analyse it.
Through tragic circumstances and with the help of her teacher and mentor, a high school senior learns about God, herself and others in a most unusual way.
Tory Hughes says
Any amplification of this for non-fiction pitches?
My one-sentence pitch mimics my tendency to over-explain. I've pruned it, but now it sounds dull and generic (but of course my book, already written, is powerful and engaging! Of course!)
Here: today's best effort-
A lifelong artist and teacher guides adults yearning for their lost childhood creativity through five practices to identify their desires, face down old programs, take action on their goals, and integrate the results in a grand creative and spiritual cycle.
Could cut lots and end up with-
Adults who yearn for their lost childhood creativity will get unstuck and reclaim a sense of direction with this five-stage guide to create their own lives.
Thanks for any input.
Farlow Figsman Fartty, Lord of the porcelain thunder trumpet says
one sentance –
When Billy Lardlump woke up to find his dick was made of gold and his testies had turned to marshmello, he had to figure out if this was due to the onset of puberty or whether somebody had been tampering.
One sentence for KISS OF DEJA VU:
When a forty-something psychiatrist leaves a shaky practice for a stable clinic job, an office party kiss upends his life. Comments?
Best one in this thread!!
One line for KISS OF DEJA VU:
When a forty-something psychiatrist leaves a shaky practice for a stable clinic job, and office party kiss upends his life. Comments?
Sorry for the typo – newbie nerves
One line for KISS OF DEJA VU:
When a forty-something psychiatrist leaves a shaky practice for a stable clinic job, an office party kiss upends his life.
1 Paragraph coming. Comments?
My query is suffering from information dump. I did the one sentence pitch, and wow, my book sounds readable!
This will be awesome practice! Thanks for the opportunity.
Kaitlin is about to have her life changed forever by an enticing stranger.
Seventeen year old Kaitlin Sinclair is about to have her world completely turned upside down when she makes a discovery, that endangers Cadmon's peoples' existence and might cost her life.
After losing her father in the line of duty, the last thing seventeen year old Kaitlin Sinclair wants to do is fly halfway around the world to live with an uncle she's never met. She certainly doesn't want to get to know the locals… That is until she's enchanted by some of the legends about the natives. She heads into the jungle and makes a startling discovery that could put both her heart and her life in peril.
Cadmon Quinn is a Borneo shifter, charged with the task of keeping his people safe from the local hostiles. To say he's unhappy when he discovers one traipsing about his people's land is an understatement. Too bad no one warned him she would prove to be more of a challenge than he'd expected. One that could jeopardize his people's existence and his heart.
Okay, here goes:
When their best boarder gets sick, two elderly sisters volunteer to make his snowman in the Snowman Contest, with humorous and unexpected results.
Um, I read your "one sentence summary" and laughed out loud. "Accidentally broke the universe" has to be the single greatest one-liner story arc summary I've ever read. Kudos.
Thanks for the great advice. How would you adjust the pitch/query letter if you have an idea for a novelty book? Something without a traditional story or character arcs?
I'm trying out your advice right now as I work on creating my one sentence pitch for a writing contest. Wish me luck!