It goes without saying that people hate writing query letters. Loathe! Abhor! Hiss! Some authors feel it is simply beneath their dignity to have to distill the wondrous complexity of their novel to a brief excerpt.
But as has been chronicled in the past on this blog: authors have to summarize their work. Often. Repeatedly. In a wildly diverse array of settings. So much that you start to hate your own book. Okay, not that much. But close!
You have to learn to pitch
Summarizing your work is part of the job description of being an author. You signed up for it the minute you typed “Chapter 1.” (And yes, literary fiction types, you don’t get to sail through on “oh man it’s so complicated but it’s really all about the writing”. You have to pitch too!). Whether it’s pitching a project to an editor, for film, in interviews, in everyday conversation: you’ll basically spend about as much time summarizing and talking about your work as you did writing it.
And yet different situations call for different length of pitches. A query is basically a two paragraph pitch with some query-related detail. But sometimes you’ll want to use a one sentence pitch (for a bio, if you’re into that whole brevity thing), or a one paragraph pitch (for briefly describing in real life conversation when you don’t want someone’s eyes to glaze over).
My feeling: get it all out of the way at once. Save yourself the headache and come up with a one sentence, one paragraph, and two paragraph pitch before you even start to query. Then: practice and memorize your pitches. You never know when you’re going to need them.
Start with the one-sentence pitch
I personally think the best way of going about this is to start with the one sentence pitch: not only is it the hardest to write, it contains the essence of your book. It’s the most crucial arc of your story, with all the other details stripped away – even, sometimes, character names. It can be painful to whittle it down (I don’t even mention the key villain in mine), but utterly, utterly necessary.
Here’s a post dedicated to the one-sentence pitch if you need some help.
You then build around that one sentence pitch and flesh it out with some key details in the one paragraph pitch – maybe the character names, or the most important subplot, or a few quick images that give a sense of the sensibility of your work.
With the two paragraph you have more flexibility to add still more details and can make it a bit more of a story itself.
I did this for Jacob Wonderbar. Here are my pitches (which I have to use very very often):
One sentence pitch
Three kids trade a corndog for a spaceship, blast off into space, accidentally break the universe, and have to find their way back home.
One paragraph pitch
Jacob Wonderbar trades a corndog for a sassy spaceship and blasts off into space with his best friends, Sarah and Dexter. After they accidentally break the universe in a giant space kapow, a nefarious space pirate named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath. They have to work together to make it back to their street on Earth where all the houses look the same.
Two paragraph pitch
Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home. He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled.
But when the trio meets a mysterious man in silver they trade a corn dog for his sassy spaceship and blast off into the great unknown. That is, until they break the universe in a giant space kapow and a nefarious space buccaneer named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath. The friends have to work together to make it back to their little street where the houses look the same, even as Earth seems farther and farther away.
And you know? There’s no time like the present! It would be great to have more examples of these different types of pitches: Feel free to share your one sentence, one paragraph and two paragraph pitches in the comment section!