My brain is full of pitch goodness. And badness. Let’s be clear, I’m talking about the process by which an author (or another creative generally) attempts to get someone interested in their idea, and not the tarry black stuff that can be set on fire. If you’ve had any interest at all in writing you will have heard about ‘pitching’, and it’s a sad fact that many an otherwise good writer has fallen at this vital stage.
Why am I thinking about this now?
I have embarked upon a new original fiction fantasy novel and at some point next year will be looking for an agent and/ or editor.
Angry Robot have announced their latest open submissions window.
Black Library also blogged about possible open submissions windows.
I spent Friday with the Black Library Weekender Golden Ticket holders helping them with writing stories, including the pitch process.
So it’s in my mind at the moment, right? Whether it’s thirty seconds in an elevator with an editor (don’t pitch in the toilets, please) or a written inquiry to an agent, at some point even the most successful and established writer has to sell their latest idea.
I’ll be up front and say that there’s absolutely no reason to listen to me on this subject at all. I have been so exceptionally lucky, with Black Library and Angry Robot, that my pitching experience in the real world is minimal. I am a stranger to the slush pile agony experienced by most writers.
On the other hand, I’ve only ever had one story pitch rejected by Black Library in all my days writing for them, and AR picked up my trilogy so I must be doing something right.
Really, Do I Have To Pitch?
Yes, you really do.
But worry not, this isn’t the hackneyed verbal pitch to a bored TV or film producer as portrayed in print and screen so many times, in which you’ll be stared out of the room in five seconds. Most of your pitches, at least the ones that really count, will be non-verbal. You might be in the privileged position of doing a full-on pitch in person to an agent or editor but it is highly unlikely. Even if you get the drop on them at a con and they are genuinely interested, the chances are high that they’ll say “That sounds good, here’s my email, send me your pitch” or words to that effect.
You’ll be pitching even when you don’t realise it. When you’re sending in the opening 10,000 words to an agent with a cover letter? Don’t be fooled by the ‘submissions’ banner on the webpage, it’s a pitch. In fact, wherever you see ‘submissions’ for a magazine or website, just mentally replace that with ‘pitch’.
The truth is that you must engage someone’s interest to sell your ideas. It helps if an editor or agent can see your intent as well as the actual piece, especially if you’re new to this. If you just send in a story or novel without any explanation you’re leaving it entirely up to your prose to sell itself. Of course when it hits the reader that’s all you’ll have, but at this stage you can actually give pointers to the potential reader. A magazine editor, for example, might like the idea but not the execution, or vice versa. They can tell you that the story was great but not their thing, or that the story was bad but your writing is good, or the other way around – you can write but the plot didn’t work, etc, etc. Make it easy for them to give you better feedback and keep the relationship open. If you send a story and nothing else, they can judge you only by that.
“The Crown of the Blood Book Plan
The Crown of the Blood is a fantasy version of Rome. Family infighting and powerful factions vie for control of a growing empire. It charts the ever more ruthless methods of its ruler, Ullsaard III, to maintain his reign; a combination of political drama and military spectacle against a backdrop of fantasy mysticism and magic. Oh, and the titular Crown contains the spirit of Asqland’s founder, the mighty Asqos, who constantly tries to possess Ullsaard and reclaim his empire.
Book one – Establish characters and setting. Ullsaard takes the Crown instead of his brother. Asuhas resentful. The bastard child of Ullsaard and Peritia born. Anglhan’s rise to prominence. The awakening of the eulanui.
Book two – Kariq makes his move, eventually crushed by Ullsaard. Anglhan plays both sides and takes power in Salphoria. Peritia raises her son in secret.
Book three –Asuhas makes his claim for the Crown backed by the mystical Brotherhood of Asqos. Division between Ullsaard and the Brotherhood. Henry VIII style dissolution of the Brotherhood, Ullsaard turns to the eulanui instead, sacrificing his brother for victory. Anglhan becomes governor of Salphoria in his place. Asuhas escapes retribution.
Book four – Rebellion in the provinces. Ullsaard distracted by war in the provinces and Asuhas’ rabble-rousing. Anglhan learns of the bastard child and raises him as a figurehead, turns Salphoria against Asqland. Three-way contest for the Crown. Ullsaard bankrupts the Empire to get Nemuria on board to win the war. Asuhas hunted down and executed. Salphoria pushed back to Magilnada. Bastard child sacrificed to the ealanui, sealing the deal from book one.
Book five – The eulanui return. Salphoria attacked. Ullsaard refuses to help despite threat to Asqland. Eulanui overrun Salphoria. Provinces truculent to help, Ullsaard must grant new independence for them to help. Greater Asqland is no more. Eulanui triumphant, Ullsaard forced into in exile.
Book six – The exiled Asqlanders come upon new shores. Guided by Asqos, Ullsaard takes over and a new Empire is born and the cycle begins again.”
The Crown of the Blood original pitch idea – this changed completely – three books for a start… This was for me alone and was revised heavily afterwards.
What’s In A Pitch?
A pitch breaks down into four parts. The first part is you. A simple paragraph about yourself introduces you to the editor or agent (obviously not necessary if you already know them, as I do with BL, although it might be funny the first few times…). Don’t get too shy with this – if you get published there will be a bio of you somewhere. Write that bio now.
After that is the one-line summary, although this might actually be a couple of lines, don’t be too pedantic. For The Crown of the Blood, the teeny-tiny summary was basically “It’s HBO’s Rome, but epic fantasy.” At this point you’re thinking that your idea cannot be rendered down to such a crass level. Oh yes it can, and if it can’t you need to work on it until it can.
The agent or editor knows that this is not the be-all-and-end-all of your story. They know how this process works, they just need to see that you do too. Don’t get too much in love with jargon, but if you do know there’s a trope or archetypical plot that you’re using, don’t be afraid of it. The story will hide it, but the pitch has to admit to it.
“A fish out of water story with a dwarf stranded on the isle of the elves.”
“Two space marines on a buddy mission inside a Tyranid Hive Ship.”
“A bildungsroman of Napoleon in an alternate history in which he was born on the Isle of White not Corsica.”
“Two supercomputers in a story that blends Wargames with the Odd Couple.”
After this you get to do more of an overview. This should be no more than a page (for a pitch, but see synopses, below). Get in, describe the main characters and the bulk of the plot and then get out.
Keep to the plot and any major sub-plots, not every in and out of what happens. Stick to theme, not just events. If you think your story is too complicated for summary, take a good look in the mirror right now, ask yourself “Really? Is it really?” and then get over it. You can summarise your tangled web of intrigue, sex, a donkey sanctuary, Martians and solar power and you will.
Sometimes it helps if you think of this like the blurb on the back of the book: what is that going to say? Obviously the marketing people will put something completely different on the actual book, but it’s a good exercise to go through for your own clarity.
The premise underlying the series is of unearned reward. Many of the characters take shortcuts to wealth and power, building castles on the sand that later collapse. This works on several levels, from the nature of the Asqland empire itself, to the ambitions and achievements of individuals. In the end, not only those characters that took the short-cuts are affected, the fall-out destroys the lives of those around them.” From my pitch for The Crown of the Blood.
A synopsis is another name for an overview but in this context I think of it as a more detailed breakdown of the story events – chapter-by-chapter sometimes for a novel, but not always. I would only include this if you’re not sending any sample work – so this is sort of what I would give to BL, for example.
There is no hard and fast rule for a synopsis, but I would say that this should be no more than 10% of the length of the actual piece, and the longer the piece, the shorter the pitch in relation to its length (particularly since your novel pitch will be including the ten thousand words of the opening chapters, right?). Ten thousand word story? 1,000 word pitch. Max. 100K of epic sci-fi goodness? Maybe seven or eight thousand words. 5,000 word audio? A couple of paragraphs probably. Even if your outlines for yoturself are longer (and some can be very long) try to trim it down for the ease of your editor.
If necessary, include very brief character bios for the major players up front. Discuss psychology and motivations, not physical properties (unless that is important to he plot, like being able to fart fireballs or something).
There are sample synopses from some of my older work if you look at the links on the right. They aren’t pitches as such, but they do give you an idea what to aim for. I’ll try to put up a couple of more recent short stories too, since that’s what BL look for mostly these days.
The truth is that the more you have been published and worked with an editor, the more willing they are to commission on something vaguer with a few return comments – they trust you to deliver in the prose and rewrites. If you’re starting out you have to prove yourself in the synopsis too.
What is my Pitch Trying to Achieve?
The pitch is trying to do whatever your story is trying to do – intrigue, captivate, move a reader. Make the editor care about the characters; grip an agent with the depth of the setting and plot; make them love this story or novel as much as you do.
Think why as much as how, what, where and whom. The less questions the recipient has to ask about the characters or plot, the more successful the pitch will be. The only question you want the reader to have is, “When can I have it?”.
Let’s be honest, editors and agents want to find good writers. That’s what they get paid to do. If you have a good story and aren’t a complete nutjob (or are a complete nutjob but have an absolutely amazing story) they want you to get in touch.
Do not be timid, do not sell yourself short and do not give them excuses not to like you or your work. These people are, drunken performances at conventions and online notwithstanding, professionals. They can literally read between the lines (though if you send it with 1.5 or double-spacing it helps). Make your pitch personal, pertinent and punchy.
Do NOT send them everything but the ending. That results in a different sort of punchy. Get them excited and then give them the payoff, just like you would the reader, but in abbreviated form. Come on, you’re a storyteller, you know how to weave this stuff, just do it with less words…
When Do I Write My Pitch?
Normally first-time writers or writers starting a new project (like me) will write the pitch after the piece is finished. However, if you have an ongoing relationship with the editor(s)or its for a particular IP then often the pitch will come first, before you spend all that time writing something you can’t then ship around to other interested parties.
There’s a whole other topic of planning and using outlines, but the pitch can be a useful exercise either at the start, midway or end of the writing, depending on your personal writing process. After writing something it’s useful to either try to condense it into a pitch, to make sure you have a decent theme and a solid plot amongst all the words; or to compare what you’ve written with the pitch you planned (or actually sent!) If you really, really can’t summarise your story for a pitch, perhaps it isn’t about anything at all and needs more work!
Stuff changes, so don’t feel beholden to the detailed synopsis one hundred per cent, but be sure you’ve stuck to the story in the broader pitch, or otherwise revise the pitch so that it suits. If you’ve already had the work commissioned and it’s straying off the outline be sure to have a conversation with your editor. They’ll probably be as excited by the new direction as you, but don’t dump it on them without warning.
If you are planning a series of two or more books or stories, give a very brief overview of the series and a detailed pitch for the first piece. Think of it as though you were pitching two slightly separate stories – the big one and the first one.
When Do I Use My Pitch?
Whenever you’re submitting something in writing, include the relevant pitch parts in a covering letter for your manuscript (if the editor/ agent asks for manuscripts that is).
Be prepared for success. This is why it’s often useful to pitch only once the story or book is written. An editor may ask to see more, and if they have to wait six months while you write it their enthusiasm might wane. Similarly, if it took you three years to create Book One of your trilogy and an editor likes it, get ready to write Book Two a lot quicker!
Keep an eye out for open submissions windows, as well as seeking the right sort of agents to approach. If nothing else, practise will improve your pitch-writing as much as it helps your storytelling and you’ll get useful feedback even form the failures hopefully.
Know your one-line pitch and the summary so that should you find yourself at the bar next to a willing editor or agent (the bar, not the toilets!) you can pitch like a pro. Don’t forget the bit about yourself – act like a human.
“Hi, I’m Gav Thorpe. I’ve had some books published already and I’m wondering if you’re open to me telling you about my next project?”
“Would you like a drink?” often helps…
If they say no, don’t be disheartened – say thanks and part company but don’t fret about doing it again. It takes nerve – often more nerve than I have – but a modern readership won’t let you cower behind that keyboard all day anyway so might as well get used to talking to people face-to-face, amirite?
Be ready for questions. If something throws you, just say so. “I hadn’t thought of that,” and “I’ll need to think about that,” are far better than whatever random crap you’ll spew out on the spot. Make a note and actually think about it before you pitch again. Be engaged with the feedback you get there and then.
Be concise in your answers, but show enthusiasm. Be proud of getting this far, but not arrogant. You are selling yourself as much as your story – this is the potential start of a career relationship not a one-night-stand. By that token, figure out if you can work with this person – just because they might want your story doesn’t mean they are actually the best fit for you or your work.
Remember that although they will actually be judging you and your work, they’re professionally inclined to give you a good shot, unlike the readers you will be getting later. Make the most of their indulgence.
And I will end with one final piece of advice: Read The Career Novelist by Donald Maass. (
Free PDF Bugger, he’s taken it off the agency website. There are PDFs around but I can’t vouch for their legality or anything.) Don’t be so desperate for acceptance, affirmation and recognition that you accept any old offer. You’ve gone to the trouble of selling that novel, make sure the price is right too and you’re happy with the commitment to you from the other side.
It’s also worth checking out the blogs of agents and editors because they go on a lot about what they’re after in a story and a pitch. Even if you don’t have a pitch handy but have time to chat to one of these people, it’s a useful conversation to have, and keep an eye out for panels on the subject at conventions.