Back in March when I attended the SCBWI OK spring conference, some of you may remember that I won a couple of face-to-face critiques with speakers at the conference. During one of my sessions, I took the opportunity to ask Melissa Manlove, editor at Chronicle Books, what she thought of my 40-word pitch for my manuscript, which was included as part of the program. I’m fairly new at writing pitches and I knew that I could use some guidance. I’m very glad I asked. She was so generous with her time and her insights. What she said next really clarified the whole concept for me. I’ve been meaning to share that bit of wisdom for awhile, so here it is.
First of all she said my pitch was something to the equivalent of “Meh”.
Here is the pitch I submitted:
A childhood prank gone wrong leaves Will Harris crippled by fears and homebound. During an outing for his recovery, he witnesses a crime. No one believes him. He must find the courage to solve the mystery and prove his sanity.
I think by ‘meh’ she was being kind.
Next, she said, rethink the whole idea of trying to get the point of your story across in the length of an elevator ride. For a middle grade story, she said to try this:
Pitch your story like you’re telling it to a bored eleven-year old on an elevator.
And then lightning struck my brain.
I got it. She expanded this thought to say you should tell your pitch to this eleven year-old with the idea of convincing him this is a book he’ll be so excited to read, he’ll want to grab it right out of your hand. Get to the good stuff; the action. Kids don’t care about the backstory or character motivation when you’re trying to convince them to read a book, they want the main events.
Hey, I know this story that you are going to love. It’s all about this kid who gets locked up in a museum at night and then he finds these thieves stealing some of the paintings. He sets off the alarms, but when the police arrive, there’s no sign of the crime and no one believes him. He decides to solve the crime himself and that’s just the beginning of even more trouble.
That pitch is a little less “Meh” if I do say so myself. Sure, it’s a little longer than it’s supposed to be, but now let’s put it into a more refined form and see if it still works when we distill it back down to a 40-word count. (Just FYI, pitch lengths can vary. I kept mine to this length because that was the guideline for this particular conference submission. It’s not a bad idea to have a few different pitches on hand of varying lengths – some even Twitter length as many pitch contest arise and you never know, that agent or editor you’re dying to pitch to may one day participate on one.)
Will Harris gets locked up in a museum the same night thieves break in. Will triggers the alarm and police arrive. They find no sign of crime. The trouble gets started once Will decides to solve the crime himself.
Much better than the first one. And who knows, we might get that bored eleven year-old to snatch that book out of our hands, yet.
See if keeping your audience in mind helps when you write your next pitch.