Following last week’s Ten of my favourite novels of the last ten years, it’s exciting to be doing something new today: hosting my first spotlight on pitches for not-yet-published books by unagented writers. I’m also delighted that industry expert Andrew Wille accepted my invitation to share a few thoughts on what makes a good book pitch. Andrew is one of the most generous and inspiring people in the writing community and his input has worked wonders for me. If he’s not on your radar yet, do check out what his fantastic Writing Studio has to offer, including many free resources.
Thank you very much to everyone who sent me their pitch – it takes courage and confidence to put your work out there and I really enjoyed reading them. There were a lot of great entries which once again made for difficult decisions. These ten were the strongest in my opinion (always remember this is notoriously subjective), giving a clear and enticing indication of what the story promises and – very importantly – planting questions in the reader’s mind.
Congratulations to all ten writers – it’s a pleasure to showcase your work. The overall winner is Jane Anderson, who gets to choose between a submission package review, a 3000 word critique or to pick my brains on anything writing-related on Zoom or in person. As promised in the call for submissions, any of these novels that get published are guaranteed a second appearance on the blog.
Most people find short pitches (along with synopses and back-of-book blurbs) difficult and frustrating to write. Maybe it’s because of my comms and copywriting background, but weirdly I relish it. In compiling my book selections I’ve often ended up rewriting the 150 word blurbs of published novels because the book was so much better than it was made to sound. Of course a tiny paragraph can’t do justice to a novel – but a successful one captures its essence, sharpening the reader’s appetite. Think of it as an apéritif!
Something is stirring below the streets of Glasgow. Something sinister. An inexplicable event on the modern city’s Subway casts light onto the darkness of a terrifying presence, unlocked during the building of the Subway in the late 19th century. Past and present are bound together with devastating consequences.
Despite Kendal’s warnings, her partner Ruth returns to their homophobic hometown to help her family. When Ruth’s phone goes silent, Kendal knows something has gone wrong. Thirty years ago, Kendal saved Ruth from a conversion camp. Can she save the woman she loves a second time?
Jack is a musical prodigy but on his parents’ death his wish for invisibility changes everything. As his heart slowly mends thanks to Aliana, who can’t yet see him, the invisible musician must travel Europe to undo the gift that became a curse. His violin is his only weapon.
Everyone who stays in 409 walks away a different person. Ragwood Hall’s smallest guest room has the inexplicable power to alter everything forever, changing the lives and hearts of newly-weds, lonely divorcees, jilted lovers and jaded salesmen. Is there an undiscovered secret within this bleak and remote coastal hotel?
Isla wakes up in a lighthouse with almost no memory. When a military boat arrives, the Lighthouse Keeper claims she is in mortal danger. Can she trust him and what will she do when she discovers who she really is? Her choices will have major repercussions for both of them.
Hamburg’s red-light district, 1960: Scarred by her wartime experiences, ageing nightclub hostess Anna shuns emotional attachment. However, when the arrival of an unknown band called The Beatles stirs memories of her younger brother – for whose untimely death she blames herself – Anna’s forced to question both her solitary existence and future.
How would it feel to discover your sister is living on the streets? How would you cope with the realisation your husband is responsible? Lorna’s whole life has been crushed by the weight of a traumatic secret and her husband likes it that way. Only her sister can set her free.
When her brother is reported MIA during the Great War, a failed art student discovers new purpose for art in a hospital, painting prosthetic masks for wounded soldiers. But when her mask fails to help one soldier, she questions her worth as an artist and her loyalty to a friend.
Lucile has survived debtors’ prison, scandal and her suffocating family. Now her declining mental state makes her a suspect for the fire that destroyed the one place she felt safe. Follow the naive but endlessly hopeful Lucile through marriage, motherhood and madness through the eyes of her estranged daughter, Eden.
“Nobody here will try to hurt you,” the manager told me on my first day at the care home. On the bookshelf was Mort, Terry Pratchett’s novel about Death’s apprentice. In front of the shelf was 87-year-old Edith, who wanted help to “stamp on someone’s head.” I liked her immediately.
Don’t they sound brilliant? We’d all love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Now it’s over to Andrew Wille:
I’m starting with a negative, but it comes up so often that it’s best to get it out of the way: I am not a fan of pitches that start by telling me the book is a literary/commercial/bookclub/YA/crossover/[insert generic category of your choosing]. Such catchall terms are broad and vague and give me nothing of what I want, which is: a STORY. I want to know who, where, what, why, when. I want DRAMA, I want a spark. Some idea of a central crisis can help too.
Sometimes it is useful to mention specific genres or story types if they help define the book and its readership in some way. It’s a dark and gritty police procedural about … It’s a frothy rom-com set in … But then give us some grounding and specific details: characters, jobs, family relationships, settings, sources of conflict, what’s at stake, what’s to be gained or lost.
Cheesy comparison pitches are best avoided. It’s Sally Rooney meets A Little Life in outer space. NO. Some sound irresistible, but they usually feel second-hand and lazy or downright silly. Leave these to agents and publishers trying to sell your book further down the line.
I also want a flavour of the writer in the voice and tone of the pitch. A big ask! But so often pitches can feel garbled or clotted, cramming a lot in. Be easy in your expression – trust your natural speaking voice. Imagine you’re telling a friend, My book is about … Think about what you are giving to them.
So, for one of my favourite stories, Brokeback Mountain, here’s a first attempt: Set against the windswept backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, it’s an epic love story about two cowboys who have a secret love affair in the homophobic 60s and 70s.
Now, this could be tweaked a bit, but it’s okay for a start. Actually, maybe it’s fine. It’s plainly spoken, and it contains ingredients that capture my imagination and signify departure points for a potential reader: setting (I’m always a sucker for the American West); gay cowboys (always a sucker for those too!); a secret; DRAMA. I’m wondering if I should use the word tragic or tragedy somewhere? Maybe shoehorn in desire or regret? It’s a tragic love story of desire and regret set against …? You tell me. Maybe I’m overdoing it now. I’ll have to sleep on that.
Your best pitch will depend on the ingredients that bring your own story to life. So once you are done, reread your manuscript, and be sure this pitch is embodied in some way in every chapter/scene/page/line. Yes, we are demanding! But let that pitch sing through your work.
And yes: I’m opinionated, and all things creative are subjective. So take this with a pinch of salt, and balance out what I say with other perspectives too. Then figure out what works for you and your book.
Mostly, remember that you don’t need to be clever or wildly original – you just need to tempt someone to read your book.
Many thanks to Andrew for this excellent advice which makes it sound fun and creative. He also recommends the book Pitch Power by Kate Harrison.
It’s been a lively month on the Sofa – thank you for joining me to celebrate 10 years of doing something I love. I’m going to go quiet for a few weeks to plan my next novel. How did I decide what to write? I sent a 50 word pitch to my agent and she replied, ‘I’m hooked’!