If Walls Could Talk: Polishing Your Pitch ‘Til It’s Perfect

M.H. Norris

“Canada Water Library Shelves” by Barney Moss

Sometimes, writers have to go back to basics. It’s been awhile since I pitched a short story idea cold turkey without having been asked to pitch an idea and I found myself a bit rusty. What do I say in a pitch? What details do I include? Seriously? Just a page?

Let’s preface this post with this, pitches and outlines are two of my least favorite parts of writing but they are necessary.

James, stop chuckling.

Let’s talk about the all-important pitch. You see a short story anthology, you want to be in said anthology. They ask for a one-page summary.

What do you do?

Don’t panic.

Yes, the bottom of that single page can and will feel extremely close.

Yes, you will be forced to cut things and you’ll hate everything because you think the things you are cutting are vitally important and the editor can’t possibly do without and how dare they expect you to limit your brilliance to just one page.

Yes, yes they do.

This pitch is your chance to show the editor, or curator, just what you can do. In approximately 500 words, you must convey a story that will span several thousand.

So here are some tricks.

1) Do include information about the ending

Especially with a mystery. This may seem obvious, but trust me when I say it isn’t. They want a synopsis from start to finish.It should feature every major plot point.

If you’re writing a mystery, be sure to include who did it, maybe insight into the motive (let’s be honest if you have a good long idea for motive you won’t be able to fit it into the pitch – tease them, give them a hint at least, as much as you can).

Part of it is they want to make sure you can finish the story once you start.

2) Do not go over the limit

Yes, yes, I know. You think one or two lines over won’t make a difference.

It will.

Especially if you are trying to break into a franchise anthology or with a bigger publishing house, they are sticklers for the rules.

It’s hard, I know. Trust me, I’m working on a pitch right now for something and I’ve already cut once and I probably have to go cut again (I’m writing this and trying to avoid the fate that awaits me – sigh this reprieve won’t last for long).

But do it. You need to follow the instructions. That doesn’t mean these details are cut from the story; they’re only your synopsis for this pitch.

3) Don’t be afraid to repurpose ideas

Two stories on this one. Because yes, I made it this far without storytime this week. I pitched a short story idea and got rejected. I loved the idea of the idea and found a potential second home for it, but the idea needed to be repurposed. We’ll see if I get to use it this time.

Second story is actually one you can find on the commentary for the pilot of Psych. Steve Franks talks about a scene near the end where Shawn actually calls the cops on himself (yes, he does have a reason but it’s funny to pretend he doesn’t). According to Franks, he’d been trying to fit that gag in to projects for years but it never stuck and he was so happy he actually got to do it.

Sometimes, a story you think is perfect for one thing, actually belongs somewhere else, slightly different.

That has to go with the keep trying and don’t give up advice that I should put in here somewhere.

4) Make sure all your pieces connect and it makes sense

This is hard and a place where I struggle. Especially if I’m limited to something like one page. Badge City: Notches’ pitch was 2-3 pages if memory serves and I could get away with that. But often, that isn’t the case and you have to adapt.

That being said, trying to throw a mystery into a few words and include the who, what, where, when, why, and how is very tricky. Keeping that all intact and staying inside the word limit is even harder.

But it needs to make sense because if it doesn’t, you’re killing your story before it has a chance to shine.

So A goes to B goes to C and when you cut stuff due to space make sure you don’t cut something that makes your plot suddenly not make sense.

It’s a balancing act. Have someone read it over before you send it in to make sure it still makes sense.

5) Do have other details that don’t make it in

Keep in mind, that once accepted, you have to write this story. You cannot give away everything in a pitch. Those gems you cut? Keep them tucked away, just in case. You might get the chance to use them.

6) Do your research

There’s a good chance you’ll have to have some basic knowledge of whatever you happen to be talking about to make your pitch make sense. Granted, I’m one to talk since I pitched for Badge City: Notches using the information I’d learned on Psych about police procedure and murder.

Luckily for me, Steve Franks’ father was a cop. He knew his stuff. And it tended to slot in with my interviews with members of the police force and my stack of reference books.

If you’re writing a historical, those little details can make or break you. This is also the point where I once again point you in the direction of Jon Black’s fabulous blog here on the 18thWall site.

Hint hint, wink wink.

Pitches, synopsis, and outlines aren’t going anywhere in writing. Sad but true facts. Hopefully the things I shared here help you as you search for the perfect place for your idea.

Good luck!

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