Writers use one-sentence pitches for just about everything: query letters, hooks, book summaries, back blurbs and for pitching ideas to editors and agents. We can also use the pitch to guide us as we write our novels. Creating your pitch statement before you start writing a book can become your secret weapon.
But writing the one-sentence pitch is the most difficult task a writer faces. How do we coalesce the soul of our book into a few words? There is so much going on in our novel. So much to say. How do we refine our thoughts and drill down to the nitty-gritty of our story?
Well, I have a formula. Yes, a formula. It’s like Mad Libs. You fill in the blanks with words of your choosing and then refine the statement until you are satisfied with the outcome.
Use the Mad Libs Approach
Instead of being asked for a verb, a color, an animal, etc., you are going to use four things about your book to fill in the blanks of the MadLib sentence:
Your Four Things
- The hypothetical situation: _______________________________________________
This is the situation at the beginning of your story that will change the life of your main character forever..
Ex. “After aliens invade…” or “when she inherits forty-nine horses”
- Your main character’s name: _____________________________________________
Ex. “Dagmar Day”
- Your main character is trying to… (The Issue): _____________________________________________
All great books are created by writers who have something to say. Books aren’t just about plot and characters and action scenes. Books are about people facing a tough issue and making a tough moral decision about the issue. Your protagonist is trying to…(learn to trust, get justice, forget the past, etc.). What is their dilemma? Try not to get into the weeds here with a lot of plot detail. Distill your character’s dilemma or issue into a basic concept of one or two words. Hint: In many books, what the character is trying to do involves a moral decision or their emotional well-being, not just a physical problem.
Ex. “Survive” or “save the planet” or “reclaim their honor”
- Assumption the main character makes to deal with their problem: __________________________________________________
What does the main character believe they must do to resolve the issue? What does the main character believe (deep in their heart and against all odds, etc), which is shown to be true (or completely false) at the end of the story?
Ex. “Kill the King of Venus”
Now Fill in the Blanks
Here’s the MadLib type fill-in-the-blank sentence for your pitch. Hint: Keep it in present tense for use in book blurbs, teasers, etc.
After __________1____________, the only way ___________2__________ can ___________3____________ is to ________________4_________________.
Here’s the One-Sentence Pitch
After aliens invade, the only way Dagmar Day can survive is to kill the King of Venus.
This is our one-sentence pitch. But here’s the best part. Inside this pitch, we have created a premise. Our main character has made an assumption about survival. Dagmar Day ASSUMES she has to kill the King of Venus in order to survive. This is the premise of your book. Will Dagmar find her assumption to be true at the end of the book? Or false?
If you are writing a sci-fi novel, the assumption is probably true. If you are writing a romance, the assumption is probably false, and Dagmar ends up falling in love with the king.
Having Trouble with Your Premise?
If you are having trouble coming up with your premise or assumption, be sure to add “the only way to” to your issue. That will automatically set up two sides to the assumption. A strong character in a novel will always challenge an “only” statement. It’s human nature to do so. When Dagmar is told, “The only way we can survive is if you sacrifice yourself to the king of the aliens,” our heroine will retort, “No way. I’m not going to sacrifice myself. I’m going to kill that sucker!” Making it more life-and-death will raise the stakes for your character, which is what you want.
A character’s assumption about the issue is your premise. That’s what you will set out to prove or disprove. Is your character right to make the assumption and hold to that belief? Or will they find out they’re wrong and change their minds at the end of the book? The entire book will be about the journey the character takes to find out if they are right or wrong about their assumption.
Your character should have an arc in regard to the premise:
- I believe — Maybe I’m wrong. This is too hard, too dangerous, etc. –No, I was right.
- I believe –Could I be wrong? My heart or gut is telling me something different –Yes, I was wrong.
Every Type of Literature has a Premise
Even a mystery novel will be fired by a premise. The assumption usually belongs to the villain in this type of story. Think of how a mystery usually ends, with the bad guy explaining why they did something or the cops figuring out why the crime was committed. Criminals aren’t hung up on the “how” they did something. It’s always the “why.” It’s always about the premise and what the villain believes they had to do in order to fix something.
Use Your One-Sentence Pitch as a Guide
When you use the hypothetical situation/issue/assumption method to build your pitch statement, you will automatically build in a premise. You will then know what you are going to prove or disprove at the end of your book.
Building the premise first will guide you as you write. Your characters will hold personal beliefs about this premise and will take action in regard to it. And at the end, some of your main characters will change their minds about what they believe as you prove or disprove the premise through your protagonist. And of course, your protagonist’s belief/assumption will be in complete opposition to that of the antagonist.
Pitch statements and premise are tough things to tackle. I know. I’m like every other writer. I want to write plot. I want to dive into those action scenes, those love scenes, and those scenes where the heroine meets the hero for the first time. But good stories are crafted around premise.
Good stories drive toward proving the premise. If you keep your premise as your guiding star—if you know what your one-sentence pitch is (what’s at the heart of your story)—you will write a much better book. You will satisfy readers on a visceral level. And that means your book will stay with a reader long after they read the last line.
Ms Simpson has won numerous awards for her fiction, including Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award, Career Achievement Award, and has been a finalist in the RITA awards and for Best Indie Paranormal of the Year. To listen to more writing tips, tune into her podcast Fabulous Writing Tips.
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You’re an indie author. Your critique group and beta readers have scrutinized your chapters and cover. You have made final changes and are ready to publish. Right? Wrong. Make an audiobook first. Here’s why.
1. The ear hears what the eye skips over.
In this day of digital media, we have grown accustomed to skimming for information. We scan paragraphs for salient points and move on. Our eyes are designed to do this. Most of us can read words whose letters are jumbled almost as easily as if the letters were in the correct order. Understanding at a glance is a skill.
But our skimming skill isn’t that great for editing. My eyes will gloss right over “the” next to “the,” especially if there’s a line break between them. But if I’m reading the manuscript out loud, I’m using my brain in a different way. When reading as a narrator, the brain knows it has to quit scanning, pay attention to what the mouth is saying and the ear is hearing and take the time to understand and pronounce every word.
2. Narration catches convoluted writing.
Sometimes, after numerous rewrites, we can overwork a paragraph until it reads like a James Joyce novel. Long, convoluted sentences can lose your reader and force them to backtrack, just to understand what you are trying to say. The horror.
You don’t realize how convoluted the writing is, because you’ve read it so many times you could probably recite it by heart. When you read your book out loud, however, your voiceover actor self will experience the same confusion a reader experiences. What’s the subject? Where does the emphasis belong?
Why would you want to make a reader work that hard?
When you read your book out loud, your ear will catch convoluted passages as you encounter them. You will stumble over convolutions your eye has skimmed over; granted, it is stellar prose—and who wouldn’t award you the Booker Prize for the turn of phrase that was just so perfect, so golden, you just have to keep it in because it reads so wonderfully, especially since there is a semi-colon, colon and an em dash or maybe even some parentheses—because, really, writing novels can show off a person’s genius (and phraseology) as no other medium.
K.I.S.S.* (Keep it simple, Steinbeck!)
3. Narration catches overuse of adverbs.
Most writers know the less adverbs they use, the better their text flows. Adverbs can really slow down a sentence. But those pesky adverbs crop up, no matter how vigilant we are. If you read your book out loud, you will catch a lot of extra adverbs, because they are often difficult to pronounce in a sentence. (At least for me.) Try saying this phrase three times:
“…feeling peculiarly safe with him…”
Even if your tongue didn’t just fall back into your throat, try recording what you just said. Listen to it. The clip will probably sound like you’re yodeling. Drop the adverb if the sentence doesn’t require it. It rarely does.
4. Audio playback finds plot holes.
A book takes a long time to create. Sometimes years. Over time, even the best of writers can forget details from Chapter 1 to Chapter 40. Years may have gone by since you mentioned the red spoon in Chapter 1. How did it become green in Chapter 40? If you read your book cover to cover, you might catch the spoon mistake. But again, your eye is trained to understand on the fly. And it’s moving fast. According to Wikipedia, the average adult reads text at 250 to 300 words per minute. Narration is done at 150 to 160 words per minute. So your mouth is going twice as slow as your eyes. And those eyes will gloss over so much. There’s something about the brain to eye connection that is totally different than the brain to ear connection. (At least for me.)
If I take that same book and listen to the audio track, I have a totally different experience. I’m not reading text, fingers poised to go to the next page. I am IN the book, IN the world. My ears engage my brain and keep it inside the story instead of streaking forward with the eyes. I am usually amazed at the details I find to fix in the text. Or things I’ve said too many times. Or things I’ve renamed.
In the old days, a good editor caught many such errors. But the last editor I had was too busy to care as much as she should. I was amazed at the errors that got through a traditional publisher. So now, I do line edits myself, using audio. But it’s worth it. Editing for the ear has made me a much better writer.
In fact, as I edit the audio, I keep my Word document open so I can alter my text as I go. Then both audiobook and manuscript are exactly the same.
5. You know how you want things said.
Have you ever watched a movie and thought the actor emphasized the wrong word? They completely missed the punch of the sentence. The timing. The irony. That can happen if a narrator doesn’t understand your meaning or your sense of humor. I’m not saying narrators can’t read books well. There are wonderful narrators out there. I’m saying that you are the person who knows how to best interpret your prose.
6. Readers want to read along or multitask.
I met an avid reader the other day who said they love to read but have trouble staying on task. They lose their concentration and their place in the book. But if they listen as they read along, they stay in the book. (Again, that ear/brain connection.) So if they buy a book, they ALWAYS buy the audiobook, too. That was a revelation to me. Audiobooks are time-consuming to make, but the profit on them is much larger than a book sale. If there are more people like Kelly out there wanting to buy both versions of your book, you should make the audiobook available to them. More sales!
Plus, more and more people are jogging, cleaning and driving while listening to books and podcasts. I predict the audio market will one day be as popular as the text market. Why not reap the benefits of this growing market and improve your writing at the same time?
Listen to an audio sample of Patricia Simpson’s latest book, Apothecary
About the author:
Patricia Simpson has won numerous awards, including Romantic Times Career Achievement Award, Best Futuristic, Paranormal, Fantasy of the Year and Reviewer’s Choice Awards. One of her recent novels, SPELLBOUND, was nominated Best Indie Paranormal of the Year.
Visit Patricia Simpson’s website at https://patriciasimpson.com.