Number 4/8 in a series of weekly posts on how-to write your own cover copy by Colin Brush reprinted from Summer 2020. Follow this blog to get all the instalments.
I never take on a client unless I can pitch their book in twelve words.’ UK literary agent
The pitch is perhaps the most crucial aspect of understanding and selling your book. It is how you connect it to other people. But we have very little time and space to get their attention. Everyone is busy and being constantly bombarded by information. So how do we make our pitch stand out?
Firstly, we should write short. One of the most well-known agents in UK publishing used to say he would not take on a new client unless he could pitch their book in twelve words or fewer. Most people react with horror when told this. It’s impossible! Ridiculous! Nonsense! But actually if you can’t say what a book is one sentence can you confidently say you understand it or know it? It was Pascal who said (I paraphrase) ‘I’d have written a shorter letter if I’d had more time’.
Concision does take time but it also focuses the mind on what is truly important. Pitching your story in one line forces you to keep only what matters and ditch everything else: is it the stakes, the world, the themes, a character, a journey? Just as importantly, your pitch becomes an anchor: a holdfast that will keep you from drifting too far from this central crucial idea when it comes to writing your blurb. This should be the kernel around which your story has accreted.
Secondly, to inspire interest in others a pitch requires some tension: it should fizz. The elements in it should resonate in some sense, whether in opposition or harmony or even happy disharmony or something that is just plain unexpected. This is where your word choices and structure become vital.
Thirdly, your pitch requires an emotional hook of some sort. Yes, we are treading into the murky waters of advertising terminology. But without engaging the emotions of your reader your book just a block of dead wood. Readers need to feel something, a connection of some sort to your story (mostly you hope a strong desire to read it!). The cover and title should have stirred their emotions enough to get them to engage with your book as an object. Thus sufficiently buttered up, they are ready for your pitch to bring the story alive.
But hang on. The pitch isn’t the blurb (not yet, anyway). It might form part of the blurb, but mostly it is the beating heart of your blurb: the hooky idea that brings it all to life. I’m suggesting we figure out our pitch before we begin writing our blurb (in the same way that we figured out what story we were selling and just who it was we were selling that story to).
Which twelve words or single sentence hookily describes our book? And just as we looked at story types, there are likely to be a few different ways in which we can do it. Below are some I’ve quickly written for some well known stories and/or movies.
- Sometimes the smallest person must bear the biggest burden.
- Whoever possesses the true ring can destroy a world, or save it.
- Only the purest of hearts can resist the most corrupting of evils.
- When plague strikes the citizens fight and die – but never surrender.
- When the plague comes it is the end of everything – but hope.
- You can’t fake being human – except when you’re living a lie.
- Is the monster out there worse than the one hiding inside us?
As you can see they don’t tell you very much and some of them sound rather like film poster tag lines. Which, to some extent, they should do. They will almost certainly apply to other stories as well as the specific ones that inspired these lines. That doesn’t matter. What these lines will hopefully do – and your mileage may vary, this is not a science – is trigger some emotional recognition you (remember our archetypal story types), depending on your susceptibility to certain kinds of story.
For instance, I’m a sucker for stories in which characters face impossible odds (the end of everything) or tales in which the rug is ripped out from under you halfway through (you’re living a lie). As I said earlier we need to give the lines some frisson and that is why each one is constructed with some tension in it – small vs big, destroy vs save, pure vs corrupt, fight vs surrender. Opposites are attractive (or if you read science-fiction tales featuring anti-matter: they have a tendency to be explosive). Alternatively, you can try juxtaposing something unexpected or counterintuitive.
Of course, all the time you want to remain true to your story.
If you find it hard summarising your story in twelve words, write something longer and then start shaving words off it. Write long to write short.
Next time – now that we’ve determined our story type, our audience and what our pitch is going to be – we’ll finally get around to starting to write our blurb.
PS The seven stories I pitched in twelve words or under are The Lord of the Rings (first three), The Plague (four and five), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (six) and Alien (seven).
Colin Brush has now entered his twenty-first year working as a copywriter in publishing. Coincidentally, twenty-one is the exact number of blurbs he wrote for a particularly tricky popular novel before the editor allowed him to put down his pen.