Sentencing a Book: The Tough Task of Writing the Pitch Sentence/Paragraph

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 Sistersa 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

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Tags: agent, bestseller, letter, list, pitch, query, synopsis


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Comment by Meg Waite Clayton on September 9, 2011 at 6:11pm

The. Dreaded. Query. 



Comment by Julianne Bambrick McCullagh on September 9, 2011 at 1:16pm
this is so helpful--- i just completed a novel and am struggling with the dreaded query letter---- you ladies are great!
Comment by Gwendolyn Rhodes on September 9, 2011 at 8:08am

Very useful information here Meg and I so appreciate your candid input!


Comment by Meg Waite Clayton on September 8, 2011 at 1:57pm

>KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid.


My editor and I are having this discussion today. :)

Comment by Meryl Peters on September 7, 2011 at 10:56pm
My daughter taught me this: KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid.  Why is that so hard to do? Back for another go at it thanks to Meg's inspiring post.
Comment by Nancy MacMillan on September 5, 2011 at 9:01am
Great information, Meg.  I haven't tackled this area seriously yet, but it's around the corner.  Have saved your blog to refer back to.  Congratulation on all of your success!
Comment by Meg Waite Clayton on September 3, 2011 at 9:08am

>What a lovely thought though: imagining my book on a best seller list! I can do that!



Comment by Patricia Gligor on September 3, 2011 at 6:11am

For me, writing the first sentence of the first chapter and writing the "pitch" sentences for my queries were the most difficult. How ironic that I've written two 80,000 word women's suspense novels but struggled with twenty words or less.

What a lovely thought though: imagining my book on a best seller list! I can do that!

Comment by Meg Waite Clayton on September 2, 2011 at 2:33pm
I agree with you, Miranda. And yet that's the way the process goes on the whole. I do think if an opening is really strong you can use it for your pitch letter. For The Wednesday Sisters, my pitch was the first two paragraphs of the book itself, and I got a tremendous response. I just sent the letter, too -- not even sample pages.
Comment by Dana Alexander on September 2, 2011 at 6:53am

I couldn't agree with you more, Miranda!  My novel is written in first person, but my pitch is not.  How can the true "voice" of my character come out?  I've also read from other agents, that they absolutely despise including a question.  Though I've seen how a question can work well.  There are so many opinions for writing the pitch, from making it clever to "we prefer a straight forward well written business letter", it makes my head spin figuring out just what is preferred.

I believe your suggestion of reading the first page or two will cut through all of it and let the agent/editor decide if the writing is what they want.

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