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Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Perfect Pitch

Please welcome guest blogger CJ Lyons

The Pitch is a writer's best friend.

Why? Because it's what you'll use every time someone asks you to tell them about your book. Agents, editors, elevator folks, Great Aunt Martha. Whoever.

So you need to polish it and since it's verbal, shorter is better. No more than 25 words total, 10-15 is better.

Short, sweet, memorable. That's what you're going for--hey, I didn't say it would be easy!

There are several different types of pitches. Here's how I define them:

~ELEVATOR PITCH: a very quick, easily memorable way to let someone who has never read your work know what it's going to be like (note: not what it's about, but what they can expect).

For my debut medical suspense novel, LIFELINES, it was: ER meets Grey's Anatomy

Implying that it has the edgy realism and non-stop action of ER, but also focuses on relationships like Grey's Anatomy.

I think elevator pitches were invented by all those ADD Hollywood types

It's your down and dirty answer to: what is your book like? It's a comparison, *not* an explanation or description.

The trick with elevator pitches is to use something universally known (like Indiana Jones) or something current and trendy. You need to use comparisons your audience will understand, nod their heads and say, oh yeah, that sounds like something I'd read

~PREMISE: This is your short (25 word or less) description of your story.

More than a basic description of plot, though, your premise should work by getting the reader to ASK questions, thus building emotional velcro by getting them involved.

Need examples? Check out TV Guide and how they describe movies--the perfect short description designed to entice and create interest.

Remember, the goal of all of these pitches is to give the reader an emotional promise of what they will experience in the book.

It's not about details or character names….it's all about evoking emotion in your audience.

And one of the best ways to do that is by using a high concept pitch….

~HIGH CONCEPT: also quick and dirty, but here you're going farther than a simple comparison or description.

Instead of comparisons you use ICONs or universal concepts to connect your fictional world to the world of your audience. This creates emotional velcro with your audience, leading them to be interested enough to want to know more!

To do this, you need to do two things:

First, find a hook. This is the unique spin that you have put on your story. This means narrowing your search to one small part of your story. Start with your blurb, usually the hook will be apparent there. If not, keep looking

Basically you're boiling your novel down to one and only one unique concept--whatever it is about your story that will create an immediate emotional connection or spark interest. 

Note: often this isn't your main plot line. Often it's the inciting incident or a unique detail that you expand upon in your world building.

Second, tie this unique hook to the larger world by using universal icons and feelings, implying that society at large is affected. Something that brings this hook specific to the time and place of your novel into the ordinary world of your audience.

You're building a bridge here, connections, emotional velcro....whatever you want to call it, it needs to be so easy to grasp that ANYONE can feel it immediately.

No thought involved.

One of my favorite high concepts: ALIEN's. It was: Jaws on a spaceship.

The unique hook = spaceship. Unique because no one has been on a spaceship, it's something unfamiliar to the ordinary audience.

The universal icon = monster (Jaws). Everyone has had childhood fears of monsters under the bed.

We all know and understand fear, nightmares, terror. In fact, a large segment of the movie going audience (Alien's target audience, in fact!!) pays good money to feel these emotions!

Add the two together and we have a universal fear of monsters combined with nowhere to run (trapped on a spaceship). A powerful one-two punch!!!

Feel how it evokes an immediate visceral response as well as intrigue???

The audience hearing this high concept immediately squirm in their seats, ask themselves: where can the people on the ship run? How can they fight the monster?

AND, the movie makers tied this high concept into their advertising by using a tag line of: In space, no one can hear you scream....

But note--there is no mention of character names, no long, involved psychological profiles, nothing except the bare essentials needed to pique the audience's attention. 

That's the beauty of the high concept, it strips everything away except what you need to intrigue your audience.

It's an emotional promise.

It does NOT tell the story (unlike the premise sentence). Instead, it creates the same emotional response in your reader that your novel will evoke by using irony.

Another example. David Morrell's SCAVENGERS used as its high concept: a scavenger hunt (unique hook) to the death (universal icon). The tag line used in advertising: Some secrets should remain buried...

Pretty obvious David's audience are lovers of thrillers/suspense, and wouldn't that audience immediately respond to that high concept? Be intrigued, think, hmm...I want to read that book, wondering what this master of suspense has in store for them.

Stephen King is also brilliant with high concepts. CUJO: rabid dog (hook) terrorizes town (universal icon). SALEMs LOT: vampires (unique hook--at the time) terrorize town, CARRIE: prom queen (hook) terrorizes town....okay, anyone think King is writing sweet romance? Or has he earned his title of the King of Terror?

So much depends on knowing your audience that it's hard for anyone else who hasn't read the entire book to create a high concept for you. It all depends who your target audience is and what kind of emotional experience you want to promise them.

For LIFELINES, my high concept is: An ER doctor saves the wrong patient.

Let's dissect it. ER doctor = universal icon (we can all see a doctor as soon as you read that, right?)

Unique twist = saves the WRONG patient

Feel the sense of irony? Implied irony really helps to make a high concept memorable. It helps you to connect to the idea, feel intrigued, want to know more.

This high concept actually only addresses one teeny, tiny plot point in the book--but it re-creates the emotional response that the book promises. A world where even good doctors are powerless to save everyone, a world where saving a life can end up costing more lives, a world where no one is immune to danger…..

All that from seven little words!!! That's the power of a high concept.

Often, because the high concept is such a tiny taste of the entire book, as writers, we get frustrated because we're looking at the big picture. We just spent months with these characters, we want to share them with our audience, expand on them, not boil them down to a bare skeleton 

But think of it this way--if you distill your story into a compelling high concept, then the reader will spend hours with your characters and story as they read....after they pay their money for the book, of course, lol!

The high concept isn't a synopsis or blurb, it's merely a way to give your audience a sneak peak of the emotions they'll feel while reading your book. 

And not every book lends itself to a high concept, so don't get too frustrated if this doesn't seem to fit your work!

No matter which kind of pitch you begin with, you'll end up using all of these during the course of the publication process.

Again your goal isn't to give away everything but rather to raise interest and more questions in the listener's mind.

Try starting with your theme or premise, add in your main character and their goal and main obstacle.

A good place to start is….you guessed it, your 25 word premise describing your book!

This is hard, very, very hard!! Be patient, keep trying, brainstorm power words, re-arranging and most importantly practicing saying them aloud.

Pitches are verbal so they need to sound smooth, natural, not awkward or stilted.

The only way to learn how to do these is dive in and give it a try!

Go ahead and post your "perfect pitch" in the comments--I'll comment on them, but I'd also like everyone who posts a pitch to comment on at least two others. Explain why they worked for you or why they didn't.

Format your pitch as: I'm pitching a (fill in the genre) titled (title). Then dive right in!

Have fun with it!


As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about. In addition to being an award-winning medical suspense author, CJ is a nationally known presenter and keynote speaker.

Her first novel, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), received praise as a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" from Publishers Weekly, was reviewed favorably by the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, named a Top Pick by Romantic Times Book Review Magazine, and became a National Bestseller. Her award-winning, critically acclaimed Angels of Mercy series (LIFELINES, WARNING SIGNS, URGENT CARE and CRITICAL CONDITION) is available now. Her newest project is as co-author of a new suspense series with Erin Brockovich. To learn more about CJ and her work, go to www.cjlyons.net.

Critical Condition

In the middle of a New Year’s Eve blizzard, the staff and patients of Angels of Mercy Hospital are held hostage by armed gunmen. Their target is Dr. Gina Freeman, who is holding vigil over her wounded fiancĂ©, Detective Jerry Boyle. Stranded outside the hospital is ER physician Linda Fiore, whose past holds the secret the hitmen are willing to kill for. With the cold-blooded killers in control, no one may live to see the New Year.

Break Free From the Slush Pile, presented By CJ Lyons, MD, runs from January 3 - January 17, 2011


Anonymous said...

What a GREAT post. Love the examples. You lay out it really well. They sure are your best friend, but really hard to come up with (for me, anyway--LOL)

Thanks for this.

CJ Lyons said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Lynn! Pitches are hard, very hard--but once you have one that works...magic!!!

Unknown said...

Very good post. Something I need to work on.

Stacy McKitrick said...

I'll be brave here. I'm pitching a paranormal romance tentatively titled "Memories":

After waking from a night he doesn’t remember, a high-ranking vampire is implicated in an unauthorized turning of a woman who resembles his late wife.

While I'm still writing the book, I'm finding having the pitch first helps me keep on track! Thanks for any feedback!

Bella Street said...

Thanks you, CJ! This was so helpful!

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks for stopping by, Carole! Have fun playing with your pitch!

CJ Lyons said...

Love this premise! I'd work on increasing the 1-2 punch of vamp with amnesia and the woman looking like his wife.

But to me, just the vamp with amnesia is pretty darn high-concept!!!

Especially if he's way old--look at the emotional impact of:
Vampire with amnesia


312 year old vampire with amnesia

See/feel the difference a few specific details make?

Great job!

CJ Lyons said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Bella!
Thanks for stopping by!

http://dawnchandlersramblings.blogspot.com/ said...

I am pitching a Historical Romance. (Iknow..not the right Genre for this site, but this site has been wonderful with information to help me in my dream.)

One act of unbridled temper leads an early women's libber to realize that she doesn't have to pretend to be a man to get what is truly important to her.

http://dawnchandlersramblings.blogspot.com/ said...

I am not into vampire stories, but I have to say that I am curious to see how the rules and regulations work in the rank and status of your vampire social hierarchy. It makes me think that this story is different from the regular vampire eat-em up stories that I have read. From your pitch I would be interested in reading it. My only complaint is in the wording...it should read.. implicated in the unauthorized..instead of.. in an unauthorized. I think it sounds smoother when reading it aloud.

CJ Lyons said...

Sounds like a great book, but I want you to try to read your pitch out loud without taking a breath....can't do it, can you?

You can eliminate a lot of wordiness (and thus grab your audience's attention better) by picking one or two perfect words that have high impact.

For instance, instead of "an early women's libber" if you're talking about a Suffragette, then say that.

(BTW, I read a great article about them lately, really amazing stuff, I think it was on the NPR site)

Just to keep on playing (I have no idea if this works for your book or not, it's just to illustrate), how's this for high concept:

A Suffragette embraces her feminine side and....(insert unique twist here)

We already have irony because Suffragette as a cultural icon is an emblem of women rejecting femininity (not true in reality, but that's the stereotype you're playing off).

Have fun playing with it!

Anonymous said...

I'm pitching a YA post-apocalyptic titled The Color of Fear. SHORT PITCH: CRASH meets THE STAND.
When a terrorist bioweapon attack wipes out most North American Caucasians, a multi-cultural blend of survivors struggle to begin new lives, until a Waco-type white supremacist leader emerges from his bunker to take revenge on them all.

Babs M.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the comment about "rank" and vampires. A hierarchy is interesting, indeed.

But I was floored to consider the era of "women's lib" as "historical" romance. Wasn't that just a few years ago when I was a girl?? Whoa. I'm OLD!

Thanks for the column--very helpful!
Babs M.

CJ Lyons said...

Babs, wow! Also sounds like a great read (you guys are all rocking today!!!)

I'd work to shorten it (for a verbal pitch--what you have is great for a query letter)--focus on the whites being mostly eliminated and the multi-cultural facet, that's much more interesting than "When a terrorist bioweapon attack..."

Do we need to know any of that? Or that it's only NA whites?

No, the important thing is: a multi-cultural band of survivors takes on a white supremacist out for revenge after a bioweapon wipes out the Caucasian race

That's really clunky, but hopefully boils it down to the essence so you can start to play with it!

Anonymous said...

Great post! Wow, everyone is sooo good at this. I need to get to work. :)

Brenda said...

Thank you so much for posting this and breaking down the different pitches we will need, and for giving examples.

Stacy McKitrick said...

CRASH meets THE STAND, didn't really say much to me, because I don't know what CRASH is (Bad me, I guess).

I got the feeling the book is rather violent (not that I'm against that). If that's not the case, then it might need some more re-work (besides the suggestions CJ made). If it is, then you came across just fine!

CJ Lyons said...

You're very welcome! Hope it helps!

CJ Lyons said...

Ciara, just remember to have fun--if you do, the audience will feel it!

Jory Strong said...

Wonderful post. I've now got a copy of it saved in the journal I keep of important craft tips I want to remember and revisit.

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Jory! Glad you enjoyed it!

http://dawnchandlersramblings.blogspot.com/ said...

awalkabout, no you are not that old. :) when I say early for womens lib it is because my book is set in the mid 1800's in proper england. She is not against her feminine side, she just wants equal rights to run the business that she has always dreamed of.

Kimber Leszczuk. said...

I am pitching a paranormal romance tentatively titled "Dance of the Dueling Spirit Guides" :

Man dies and wakes to afterlife where heaven is structured like a pyramid scheme, hell like a day spa and he has to choose.

For Babs - I don't know what CRASH is -

For Stacy - I love your concept!

For Dawn - I liked CJ's suggestions...

CJ Lyons said...

Kimber, cool concept!!! (I'm already seeing a cover quote from Christopher Moore, lol!)

But it's a bit too long and vague--since the "man" is so generic, why not personalize it to the audience? Might add a touch of humor which will get them more emotionally involved as well.

(remember all this is NOT about your story but about the audience)

Maybe something like: If Heaven was Amway and Hell the Canyon Ranch, which would you choose?

(you can do much better, I'm sure!!!)

Have fun playing with it!

Kimber Leszczuk. said...

Thanks CJ and that was a huge compliment - Christopher Moore is my inspiration!!!!!

CJ Lyons said...

Glad to help, Kimber!

larkin said...

Hi CJ,

Amazingly I find all your posts pertinent and pleasurable to read, even if before, the subject seemed like a haunted house on a roller coaster on a stormy night.

Are you also writing a book on what one needs to know to transition through the liminal space between writing the book and having the world able to read the story?

Thank you,




CJ Lyons said...

Hi Laurel! Glad you enjoyed the post.

My students have asked me to compile all my lessons from my character-driven plotting class and those can be used while writing the first draft or during revisions.

Not sure when I'll have it ready, though--have a tight deadline on my next Erin B. book...but if you're interested I'll be teaching the month long class in March.