Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Marketing: Writing the Pitch


Marketing a book starts long before the book itself is more than a gleam in the author’s eye. For me as a writer, the toughest part of the marketing package is one that comes early on: the pitch. This is the teaser that will hook an agent or an editor to read the manuscript. Or, if you're publishing your work yourself, the pitch is what goes on the back of the cover, or in the description on the e-book websites to hook readers.

A pitch isn't a summary, but it does need to give a sense of the writing and the story. It also needs to explain why the book matters. And it should be short: certainly less than a page.

What works for me in writing a good pitch is to step back–way back–and focus on the essentials: why the book matters and what makes it unique. The pitch below is the draft I wrote on a recent weekend for my memoir, Bless the Birds.

Let me know what you think!

Bless the Birds is part of a national conversation that is happening quietly and privately, but needs more attention--how we die. We spend a great deal of energy and billions of dollars denying that death will happen to us--but we're all going there. We even shy away from the word itself, preferring euphemisms: We "pass away," "meet our end," "lose our life," or even "cross the great divide." Yet death and dying is the next big issue for nearly 40 percent of our nation's population, the 76 million Americans who are Baby Boomers. Will they be the generation that reshapes how we die as they have reshaped how we work, love, and live? I fervently hope so, because we all need practice learning to accept and integrate what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke called "life’s other half."

In late summer of 2009, my husband Richard, an economics professor just finding success in a second career as an abstract sculptor, woke one morning and saw thousands of birds. Birds lining every barbwire fence, birds perched wing-to-wing on power lines; tiny birds on each blade of grass, huge birds on the rim of distant mesas. Birds that existed only in his brilliant mind. Those bird hallucinations lasted just 24 hours and were the only significant sign of something growing in his brain. That "something," we eventually learned, was a glioblastoma, the most deadly form of brain cancer.


Bless the Birds follows our journey with Richard's brain cancer, a journey we were determined to live well, mindful of our every-days and with a great deal of love. We weren’t perfect--if we humans were perfect, we couldn’t stumble and fail and thus learn and grow. Which Richard and I did a lot of. Among other things, I learned that the war he thought he had forgotten--Viet Nam--still shaped this reluctant veteran. While he, used to being a strong and physical man, learned to respect my strength and stubbornness, as his caregiver. We learned together how to live honestly and with a great deal of joy even when it became clear that Richard's life would end much too soon.

What carried us through four brain surgeries, a course of radiation, two courses of chemo and innumerable MRIs and other tests and procedures, through the shock and anger and grief, the insights and grace, the pain and laughter, and ultimately, through our parting, was love. Love for each other and our family, for the village of friends who sheltered us, and for the earth and its whole extended community of lives, the miracle that quickens our existence on this blue planet. At heart,
Bless the Birds is a love story, an intimate and unflinching tale of the choice to love life--every moment, no matter how painful--through its end.

Susan J. Tweit is a plant biologist and award-winning author of 12 books, including her most recent, Walking Nature Home, A Life's Journey. Visit her website at: susanjtweit.com

13 comments :

  1. A very powerful pitch, Susan. It certainly sounds like it will be a compelling read, though surely emotionally-harrowing, too.

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    1. Elle, Thanks much. It took me three years to write the story--in part because I had to relieve the journey again (and again and again), and surprisingly, less than a week to write the pitch. I guess after umpteen revisions of the book, I finally knew just what I was trying to say...

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  2. What a powerful story, and you certainly nailed the short synopsis very well. More recently I have heard talk of the "elevator pitch" which is more like a logline for a film and a lot shorter than your example. Maybe one of the contributors here will do a post comparing the pitch that is one or two sentences to this example.

    And my condolences on your loss. We champion on the best we can after our spouses and partners die, but it is still a struggle. What helps me is the support of family and friends, including all my cyber-friends.

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    1. Maryann, Thank you for both the compliment and the condolences. I can say honestly that living with the love of my life for nearly 29 years shaped who I am, and so has the nearly four years since he died. My sympathy for your loss too.

      As far as the elevator pitch goes, I'd pick the first line of the pitch as the opener, and then would take a sentence from the 'graph that tells the story, and add the last sentence of the pitch. Then I'd have to edit to shorten it...

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  3. This pitch blew me away, and it all started with that first graph, grabbing the reader where it counts the most. Like Maryann, I too offer my condolences for your loss and love your strength for writing about that loss in your book.

    I do have a question: how might you turn this brilliant pitch into the "elevator pitch" Maryann mentioned?

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    1. Shonell, Thank you. Writing the book was essential for me to turning a journey I never expected to take into something useful for others too.

      On that elevator pitch, I'd clip sentences from each paragraph and edit them down: one from the opening about the larger significance of the story, one summarizing the particulars of the story itself, and one from the conclusion. I'll play with it later today--I have to go teach sixth-graders how to do water-quality sampling right now!--and post something in the comments here.

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  5. Shonell & Maryann,

    Here's my first draft of an elevator pitch. It's 143 words, which may be too long, but it's a good example of how you can start by extracting sentences from the main pitch and revised them for the elevator pitch:
    Bless the Birds is part of a national conversation that needs more attention--how we die. We spend a great deal of energy and billions of dollars denying that death will happen to us, but it’s where we're all going. That lesson was driven home in a personal way when my husband Richard, an economics professor just finding success in a second career as an abstract sculptor, woke one morning and saw thousands of birds. Birds no one else could see. Those bird hallucinations were the only significant sign of the glioblastoma—the most deadly form of brain cancer—that eventually killed him. Bless the Birds follows a journey we never imagined taking but one we were determined to walk together, hand-in-hand, with open hearts. It is an intimate and unflinching tale of the choice to love life through its end.
    What do you think?

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    1. Not Shon or Maryann, but I'll add my 2 cents:

      I think you've done a great job cutting this down. If you wanted to trim even more, I think you could take out some of the "aside" details - especially if you're using this as a spoken pitch. Clauses are often where you can lose someone who might not be fully focused on what you're saying.

      E.g. (just the parts I think can still be trimmed):

      ... Most of us try to deny death will happen to us, but it’s where we're all going. That lesson was driven home in a personal way when my husband woke one morning and saw thousands of birds. Birds no one else could see. Those bird hallucinations were a sign of the brain cancer that would eventually kill him. ...

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  6. This is a compelling pitch that's relevant to everyone...whether or not we acknowledge it. The beauty within it lies in your embracing rather than denying what was happening and making the most out of suddenly limited time. Another aspect that strikes me is your willingness to share your experience so eloquently with others that they might glean its value and perhaps even apply it to their own situations. I am sorry for your loss of one so dear, but I truly appreciate your giving voice to the lives and pain of those who do not have the words to do so themselves.

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  7. I do think of a pitch, at least as represented at conferences, as being a few sentences. Your example is what I consider a synopsis. It describes the moving and relatable challenges faced and the impetus for the story. It also defines the genre: inspiring memoir.

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  8. I'm late to the party, so thanks for all your comments, and for Susan's thoughtful post. I've followed her journey since long before Richard became ill, and it still all leaves me breathless. <3

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  9. That pitch is poignant and to the point. I don't see how anyone could resist that book.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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