Friday, May 3, 2013

Four Questions for Pitches and Blurbs

Some of us really struggle with summary. We're writers; there's always a lot to say.

As beautiful as your story sounds in 50,000 charming words, what happens when you only get 50 words to pitch it to the miracle agent sitting across from you on the subway who's getting off at the next stop which is arriving in twenty seconds? Or 200 words for the blurb on the back cover of your book?

How can you do your story justice without giving up the surprises but still sending out the best hooks? This post discusses four questions to ask that apply to both blurbs and pitches. The more you practice, the better you'll get. You'll also find yourself coming up with variations each time to make it better.

Think of big-name movie trailers. These days there are always a few different trailers to view to get us excited about upcoming movies. Now they even make video trailers for books! Here's one for a Brandon Mull book we helped proofread last summer.

Visual material certainly helps our audience get excited about entertainment, but few if any of us have the resources to make quality videos that would actually serve to excite people about our stories. So we stick to what we wield best: words.

Four Questions
  1. Who is the hero?
  2. What is his or her goal?
  3. What stands in his or her way?
  4. What are the consequences if he or she fails?
These questions work for practically any story in any genre: fiction, non-fiction, drama, even poems sometimes. This is also an effective practice for works in progress. How would you summarize what you've written so far? What else does it need? Write it!

Think about your own story now, and form one or two short-sentence responses for each question above. If you get stuck, here are some extra tips:
  • Which response do you think would grab a reader's attention best? Make that the first sentence of your pitch. (No requirement to build your blurb in the precise order you answer the questions.)
  • Can you flip that response into a question to make it an even better hook? Questions—good questions—can be golden hooks for readers, agents, and publishers.
  • You can give big stuff away in your pitch. For example, let's say your story revolves around the death of an important person and we find that out in your story within the first few chapters anyway. You won't be spoiling anything for your readers by including this in your blurb (and it's effective so long as your characters face greater obstacles and consequences to surmount beyond that main element of the plot.)
  • Practice pitching and blurbing out loud. Have people tell you if they think it's interesting, if it makes them want to know more, or just makes them confused about what your story might even be about. Listen to their comments. Your readers will likely have the same responses, and the problem may not be in your blurb—your actual story may need further attention. (And send it to us; that's where we can help!)
  • Often enough, blurbs for fiction are written in present tense; historical event fiction or non-fiction tend toward use of past tense for plot description. For mentioning the strategy of the author, tense reverts back to the present for descriptions of his or her writing style.
  • For non-fiction stories, it is often effective to pull quotes from the actual text, especially when readers already know the "ending" of historical events (think Titanic, or Lincoln's assassination) but don't necessarily know specific facts and quotes from the event.
Work with different elements of your story and see how many different blurbs you can come up with and try a couple out on people. Now for a couple examples on some well-known stories.
Frodo Baggins lived a life of ease in the Shire, where such horrible things as adventures were rare. Then, one fateful day, his uncle mysteriously disappears, leaving behind a ring with untold powers. Frodo soon discovers that this ring belongs to the dark lord Sauron, who will stop at nothing to regain it and spread evil and darkness over Middle Earth. Frodo sets out with a band of guardians intent on getting him to Mordor and Mount Doom, the only place the ring can be destroyed—and the place where Sauron camps his growing army. How long can he survive with dark creatures, and his own fear, haunting his every step? (111 words)

Summer rain on a Saturday? Oh no. What will entertain Sally and her brother trapped indoors all day while Mother is out running errands? Why, the Cat in the Hat of course! Between balancing books and fishbowls on his hat while standing on a ball, and the twin creatures Thing 1 and Thing 2 flying kites inside, making a right colossal mess, it's all the siblings can do to try cleaning up before Mom gets home! (76)

"THE MURDERER IS STILL AT LARGE" read the newspaper headline six days after President Lincoln passed away. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, hoped to live in fame and glory to see the resurgence of war and civil unrest, but much greater forces had been set in motion, forces with the interminable life of freedom instilled by the nation's beloved leader.
In American Brutus (2004), Kauffman spells out Booth’s conspiracy plot in great detail. With dates of meetings and performances, Booths’ travel schedule, money transfers, and conversations with people, Kauffman succeeds in outlining the conspiracy with great suspense. (111 words)

Now that you've seen a couple examples, we know you're just itching to give it some practice! Do it. Share your examples with us in the comments below so we can become excited about your upcoming bestseller!