Someone asked in the comments recently if we would talk about pitching. What a coincidence! The next in the redlines series is about one method to parse and pitch a manuscript. Two caveats: This method will give you a long pitch, and it's geared toward romance. We'll talk about ways to build loglines and other pitching methods later. (Worth noting -- this method might be a good way to build a short synopsis.)
With RWA National fast approaching, I thought this would be a good time to share one method for parsing and pitching a manuscript. As an added bonus, this method can be used to come up with a short synopsis or, with modification, a query letter. We’ll use the novel “Jane Eyre” as our example throughout.
Imagine your pitch shaped like the opposite of an hourglass. Your pitch will start with a focused summary statement, then widen out to provide an overview of the story. Finally, you narrow it and close with summary information, such as the word count and target market. Sound easy? Get out a pen and paper, and you’ll see how easy it is. You might want to read through the instructions before trying the method yourself.
Start by making a list. This is just a list, and it doesn’t have to be sparkling or detailed.
Number 1: The narrow summary.
Write down a one sentence summary of your premise or hook, plus your subgenre. Describe characters by trait (orphaned governess) rather than by name (Jane) or function (heroine). This summary doesn’t have to be a good sentence. For now, anything will do.
(1) Jane Eyre is a gothic romance about an orphaned governess who teaches her dark-tempered employer that love heals all wounds.
“Gothic romance” is the subgenre. “Love heals all wounds” is the theme. The hook (employer/employee forbidden relationship) is implied in the rest of the sentence.
Numbers 2-4: The non-sagging middle.
Write three sentences describing the most important plot developments in the middle of your manuscript. I can almost hear the collective squawk. “What? Only three?” But if you focus on the middle of the story, leaving out the black moment and final resolution, it will be easier. Focus on events, even if you state those events without describing the actual scenes.
(2) While teaching Rochester’s young ward, Jane discovers that there is a madwoman living in the attic of their isolated country estate.
(3) Rochester proposes marriage, but their wedding is interrupted with the news that Rochester is already married to the madwoman.
(4) Jane flees to protect her virtue and nearly dies on the road, but is saved by strangers who help her see that her love for Rochester can survive all obstacles, even attempted bigamy.
Number 5: The black moment.
Write down the plot event that indicates that things are at their lowest point. In romance, this is the final reversal before the happy ending.
(5) Jane returns to Rochester’s home, and finds it burned to the ground and abandoned.
Number 6: The resolution.
Write down the plot event that resolves the conflict and leads to the happy ending.
(6) Jane finds Rochester blinded and scarred from the fire, and learns that his madwoman wife died as a result of her arson, leaving him free to marry Jane.
Number 7: The internal conflict.
This should be a quick statement of the emotional forces that keep the hero and heroine apart. Sometimes, this will need to be in two parts: one part for the heroine, and one for the hero.
(7) Rochester feels he is doomed by the youthful mistake of his tragic marriage, and Jane is haunted by a subtle sense that she can never belong to any person or any place.
Number 8: The case for romance.
Write down why they belong together, the reason that the reader will believe that these characters are each other’s soulmates. Again, this might be a two-part statement. It might even echo some of what you have written in number seven or in other parts of the list.
(8) Rochester finds forgiveness and tolerance in Jane, and Jane finds belonging and freedom in Rochester.
Number 9: The technical stuff.
Write down your word count, target market, and any other technical information you feel the editor should know. For example, if you have written a medical romance and you are a nurse or doctor, write that down. Or, if your book is similar in tone or scope to another book that the editor or agent worked on, write that down.
(9) “Jane Eyre” is a 150,000 word gothic romance which would appeal to Victoria Holt fans. As a former bigamist, I am personally familiar with the destruction that these illegal relationships can create. (Kidding! Of course!)
That’s the entire list. Read through it from top to bottom. Steps one through six should read like a skeletal outline of your plot. The next step, which can be tricky, is to decide where on that list to include the internal conflict and the case for romance. The three most likely placements each have relative advantages and disadvantages.
First, if you leave the internal conflict and the case for romance at the end, you are closing with a powerful description of the core romance. But leaving these items for the end might make the plot seem dislocated from the romance, depending on your plot.
Or, second, you might put the internal conflict and the case for romance right after your narrow opening sentence, before the three middle plot points. Doing it this way may create a transition between the opening statement and the meat of the plot. However, it might also sound like you are wrapping up and then following with expanded information, instead of presenting a smooth flow.
Or, third common option, put the internal conflict statement right after the narrow summary at step one, and put the case for romance at the end, either before or after the resolution. Doing it this way will highlight the characters’ journeys, but separating these two statements might undermine the coherency of your pitch.
Regardless of where you choose to weave in the internal conflict and the case for romance, once you have them organized, write the word “because” as often as possible. This magical little word is what you are going to use to flesh out your pitch and make your manuscript sound cohesive and tight.
You may have already included some causative elements in your list. For example, we have the statement, “Jane flees to protect her virtue.” We could just as easily have written, “Jane flees BECAUSE she wants to protect her virtue.” The meaning is there, even if the word is not.
Study your list and weave in short statements of causation. But keep in mind your time limit. If you have eight minutes, your pitch should be no longer than four or five -- you want to save time for questions, introductions, and the all-important request details. You might want to leave time to add in a one-sentence summary of your next project. But you want to appear as though you are getting behind one of your ideas, and just mentioning the second to show your commitment.
You may find that you still have extra time. If so, consider including additional details that enhance those already on your list. In our example, we might want to mention that the madwoman wife tries to burn Rochester alive in his bed, and Jane saves his life. This foreshadows the black moment (when Rochester’s house burns down), and the ultimate resolution (where we see that Jane has also saved Rochester’s heart). These details tie in more neatly than, say, Jane’s experiences at the Lowood School.
Now all you have to do is shine it up. Use words and phrases that resonate with the theme, or reinforce the case for romance. Practice saying your pitch to make sure there aren’t any tongue-twisters or other awkward phrasings. Practice with a timer until you are sure that you can pitch with confidence.
One final suggestion: reduce each step of the pitch to a single word. List the words in order on a cheat sheet to lay on the table before you during your pitch. For example, the word “widower” neatly sums up step six in our “Jane Eyre” pitch. Creating this key word cheat sheet will allow you to stay focused and avoid reading, though many writers do read their pitches. Good luck, everyone!
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.
Redlines Seven (on strong verbs) can be found here.
Redlines Eight (on tension statements) can be found here.
We'll skip Redlines Nine because its topic has already been covered in other posts.
Redlines Ten (on backstory and narrative compression) can be found here.