Regardless of how good your story idea is, how great your writing is, or how powerful your manuscript is, you must get past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing before an agent will read a single page of your manuscript… and hopefully fall in love with your story. Two of those gatekeepers are the query and synopsis, which are key parts of the traditional pitch package.
Most writers wait until they’ve completed their manuscript before starting to prepare their query and synopsis. A manuscript will take many shapes before it’s ready to pitch, so it’s not efficient to start prepping the pitch too early. Writers also have enough to juggle while writing their manuscript without worrying about how they’re going to satisfy the pitch requirements and make their submission stand out. Then there’s all the emotions that a writer inevitably expects will surface while getting ready to share their work with agents – when things will feel real. So, it makes sense that many writers think it’s better to kick the pitch down the road as long as possible.
But I believe waiting until a manuscript is written to begin thinking about the pitch is too late, and it’s highly likely prepping the pitch will highlight holes and roadblocks a writer missed in the drafting process. While sometimes these misses are minor potholes that only require minimal revisions to what the writer believes is their final manuscript draft, other times these can be sinkholes large enough to keep the writer from preparing a strong pitch package without first completing a major overhaul of their manuscript.
This installment of the Book Coach Corner series discusses how brainstorming your pitch while planning your novel can help you build a stronger manuscript and pitch while also saving you time and energy in the long run.
When preparing the query and synopsis, many writers think that once they pull together the laundry list of required items for each, poof, they have a pitch package. But the magic of these two documents is how they strategically present the most important aspects of a writer’s manuscript in three double-spaced pages (one for the query and two for the synopsis). That means a writer has roughly 750 words to summarize their entire story in a way that hooks the agent quick enough that they will want to request the first few chapters of the manuscript.
Advantages to Brainstorming the Pitch Early
Drafting a strong pitch package requires more than just including the component parts of the query and synopsis. Instead, it requires a higher level of analysis to present the building blocks needed to paint a powerful picture for the agent. A writer is not just rattling off a description of the characters, plot, and a timeline of events. Rather, the writer is describing how the main character transforms between the opening and closing pages, why this transformation is important, and why the reader should care. Writers who identify these targets before they begin writing (or while they’re still writing), instead of waiting until their manuscript is written and must be backed into, create advantages for themselves.
Brainstorming the pitch early gives a writer greater clarity, so they can build a stronger foundation for their story idea and structure. This allows them to focus better, streamline their ideas, and write smarter. This is likely to save them time and minimize their frustration during the revision phase, as well as reduce the chances of writing a first draft that’s not salvageable in revision.
There’s also the important (but harder to quantify) advantage of freeing up emotional bandwidth because the writer won’t have the unknown of the pitch process and the dreaded impostor syndrome feelings hanging over their head while they write their story.
Three Pitch Points to Strategize
You too can benefit from the advantages above by focusing on the pitch during your planning stage, but it’s important to focus on substance over form. The intention of this planning exercise is not to prepare a usable query and synopsis at this point. Rather, it’s to focus early on a few key points of the pitch process that create guidelines to help you mold your manuscript in a way that keeps your story design and manuscript writing on track.
Three pitch points I recommend strategizing early include your story’s genre, point, and structure.
It can be easy to take for granted what genre you’re writing in. We’re often superfan readers of our story’s genre, so we believe we know what we need to know. But this is not always the case. Take the time to know your game rules before you start playing the game, so you don’t get disqualified before you reach the finish line.
Action: Research your story’s genre to:
- Validate your genre,
- Identify the genre characteristics your book is expected to follow, and
- Determine the genre’s typical word count range.
Agents will assess your pitch to determine how your story aligns with your genre’s market and the likelihood they can attract a publisher who will want to buy your book. So, although you may choose to defy genre conventions when you write your manuscript, knowing the rules will help you make an educated decision before you intentionally (or unintentionally) break one.
It is not uncommon for writers to write an entire first draft (or more) before they figure out their story’s point. But starting with a target in mind and then refining it as your story unfolds is preferable to backing into it after you write your story. It’s easier to focus on what will change for your protagonist, how it will happen, and whose help they need to get there when you know what you’re trying to prove to your reader.
Think of your story’s point like the bullseye in a game of darts – you need to know where you’re aiming the dart to have any chance of winning the game. So, being clear on your story’s message at the start will help you more efficiently make story design decisions both before and while you write, which should increase your odds of proving your point and limit the revisions you need to make later.
Action: Write down your point if you already know it. If you don’t, brainstorm some ideas, write them down, and circle the one you like best. Does your point make sense with your story’s genre? If not, brainstorm some more until you end up with a point that both makes sense and resonates with you. Use this one as your starting point.
You will need to describe your story and everything you want an agent to know in your target 750 words. If you compare that to an average word count of 80,000 for a manuscript in many genres, you quickly realize how strategic – and stingy – you must be with your descriptions.
- First, break down your protagonist’s journey into 4 sentences: where they’re starting, where they’re ending, what’s their biggest struggle or roadblock, and how do they overcome this obstacle or learn the lesson that proves the point.
- Then, identify the 1-2 most important supporting characters that will aid your protagonist in overcoming their obstacle. Identify what their role is in the protagonist’s story. Knowing this helps you avoid including extra characters or scenes needlessly.
- Finally, brainstorm how you would describe the story’s arc and the characters involved using the information above from a big picture perspective. Note your thoughts in bullet form – do not write long-form descriptions. The goal here is to think about what’s going to be the most important information to include in the pitch. Then review your bullets and think about what’s missing. What else must your pitch and/or your story include to convince the agent (and eventually the reader) that both your protagonist changed, and you proved your point?
This analysis can help you streamline your story design and characters and identify possible structure and/or plot holes you might run into later if you don’t stop to develop those ideas and characters now.
Planning with your pitch in mind can provide you the high value benefits described above for a low-cost entry. This framework is not time intensive, so you can see results in as little as 1-2 hours. This tool is also a great way to assess where you are (especially if you aren’t sure what your next steps should be), and whether you’re ready to start (or keep) writing or would benefit from additional brainstorming and planning time first.
Once you complete the analysis, you’ll have a barometer that identifies initial areas you can focus on and a gauge of whether you would benefit from additional resources, such as writing craft books and classes or a book coach’s support.
Regardless of whether you’ve started drafting your manuscript or not, I hope you’ll open your calendar now and block out one hour to begin implementing the action steps above; so, you can gain more clarity on your story and next steps.
Tell us in the comments: Have you ever considered the pitch in your story planning?
Richelle Lyn is a writer and an Author Accelerator certified book coach. Her Mind Your Gap Trip Book Coaching focuses on women writing their first book after 40 because she believes it’s never too late to start. Her favorite fiction reads involve leading ladies who push boundaries and conquer their fears while preferably digging for secrets, learning magic, and/or saving the World. She’s also a fan of non-fiction reads focused on personal growth and transformation. She loves her tea hot and her coffee iced. She calls South Florida home, but her favorite place to be is on a trip.