The writing of a book and the writing of a haiku are two different things, but the sad truth is that to sell a book, we have to be able to describe it succinctly.
Seriously, every reputable agent out there is hoping to find the next great American writer. You don’t need connections (with rare exceptions). You just need to write a really good book and present it well (definitely two different things). But agents are also dealing with unbelievable volumes of submissions, and hoping to get out to dinner with their spouses or to their kids' soccer games. So you need to catch an agent's interest with the first sentence of your pitch letter, and then keep it at every turn – in a way that is PROFESSIONAL, not hokey or wacky or will-this-guy-stalk-me-ish.
If you have a high concept book, this may be easy, but for most of us, we are loath to let the intimate details of our books - the writing that really does make our work something special - fall to the cutting room floor. And we shouldn't: those details matter. The trick is to choose the right details and present them as succinctly as possible.
One great exercise is to imagine your book on a bestseller list. It's a lovely dream, and we all have it, so imagining it should put us in a positive mood.
So the thing about those lists: the book descriptions rarely exceed twenty words.
Give that a try. It certainly focuses the task.
A few non-high concept examples:
SOMETHING BORROWED, by Emily Giffin. (St. Martin’s Griffin, $14.99.) A diligent maid of honor to her charmed best friend, Rachel White has always played by the rules. But that changes on the night of her 30th birthday. (28 words)
THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN, by Kate Morton. (Washington Square, $15.) From England to Australia and back, two women try to solve a family mystery. (14 words)
OUTLIERS, by Malcolm Gladwell. (Back Bay/Little, Brown, $16.99.) Why some people succeed — it has to do with luck and opportunities as well as talent. (16 words)
THE GLASS CASTLE, by Jeannette Walls. (Scribner, $15.) The author recalls her bizarre childhood. (6!)
Simple. To the point.
For a pitch to an agent, you have a little more room, but not much. Working from that sentence, expand a little, but try to stick to two shortish paragraphs at most.
- Use as few sentences as you can pare it down to and still intrigue someone to want to read.
- Make it like the description on the back of a paperback, or on the inside flap of a hardcover.
- Include the title of your book!
- Consider starting with a question, or with your first few lines of your book.
- Resist the urge to tell the whole story. If you do, what’s left in it for them?
As in the writing of books, the editing of the pitch makes a world of difference. Go over it again and again and again. Does this get tedious? Yes it does. But if you don't catch the audience with your first sentence, you will not likely catch them at all. - Meg Waite Clayton
I'm the nationally bestselling author of The Wednesday Sisters, a writing group novel that was also a Bookmovement top 20 pick for book clubs for 2010 (based on reader's choices), The Language of Light, a current Target Pick for Book Clubs, and The Four Ms. Bradwells, a Pulpwood Queens club pick coming as a Random House Reader's Circle selection in paperback. Find more tips on writing on the writers page of my website, and at 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started