Here’s the final pitch I used for the 2012 WLT Conference again.
The mainstream novel, If a Butterfly, is like Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon — but with a butterfly; and it has sex in space, kidnapped butterflies, and radio deejays going postal.
If all life is connected, and a butterfly flaps its wings, will a ripple-effect cause a young woman to fall off the edge of the Grand Canyon, or did one of her multiple personalities cause the fall?
An astronaut on board the International Space Station has difficulty resisting a Russian cosmonaut. Is it because her husband researches butterflies, or could it just be because the cosmonaut is so charming?
When a married couple, driving across the country, accidentally kidnap a butterfly, does that put them in the path of a hurricane? Or cause them to have a wreck with a frustrated deejay?
These characters and others are all on journeys. Some of the journeys are remarkable, and some of them do seem to be ordinary, but others just can’t be explained as coincidence.
Did I mention the sex in space? If a Butterfly.
175 words (06-21-2012 version)
Compared to the 2011 final pitch, this one was nearly a hundred words shorter, but how did it get to that point?
Obviously, if I had known the phrase, “sex in space,” would garner such a negative reaction I would have substituted something else (maybe “hurricanes,” or “multiple personality squabbles”), but I was satisfied with it when I arrived at the conference. Aside from just whittling the size down, I felt it was one of the best representations of the story I had created so far.
In the past, when people asked me the inevitable question, “So, what’s your story about?” I would start by saying, “During a Monarch butterfly’s annual migration from Canada to Mexico, when other characters cross its path and interact with it, the novel picks up that character’s story and follows it. Eventually all the characters are connected in various ways.” It always seemed the easiest way to explain the plot, but it’s not accurate. That was one of my original ideas, but it didn’t work out that way. The novel (in its current state) actually begins with the other characters first. We’re already following their stories by the time our butterfly interacts with any of the characters. The butterfly is still a catalyst for some events in the story, and the connections all still occur, but not in the original linear way I had anticipated. Plots change — what can I say?
After the first year’s round of pitches, and the first few rejections by agents, I regrouped, re-edited a few sections of the book, gave it a thorough trimming and polishing, and rewrote the pitch. Many times. My typical process when writing a pitch is to start with a (usually overly-long) description of the main characters and plot. It can be as much as two or three double-spaced pages (anywhere from 500 to 900 words). Then I work backwards, eliminating the unnecessary, and trying to make the book sound as interesting and/or exciting as possible (without fudging the truth, of course).
Example: In my second book, The Jagged Man, I have four main characters (Two protagonists, and two bad guys). One of the bad guys is the Jagged Man (an 8,000 year old sociopath). He obviously has to be mentioned in a pitch, but the other bad guy is an assistant of sorts, integral to much of the plot, but no one needs to know about him at this stage, so all mention of him gets dropped from the pitch. In the first draft of the pitch for Jagged Man, I went into a lot of detail about the two protagonists (they work at the same place, Rice University; they begin dating each other partway into the book; one of them is helping the other with some tech stuff related to an ancient papyrus about a sinister “jagged man,” etc.).
All of that has to be reduced to a couple of short sentences or phrases, so a hundred words or more becomes (in the intro to the pitch) “Sarah, a brainy techno-geek, and her historian boyfriend, John, match wits with the Jagged Man, an 8,000 year old sociopath, whose Dorian Gray metabolism has let him reach the 21st century looking like he’s only forty.” Only 36 words for the initial description of the three main characters. Gradually, the rest of the pitch gets shortened that way until it’s 200 words or less, hopefully describing just the essence of the book in an accurate, attention-grabbing way.
Then, a couple of months before I’m going to need to give the pitch, I record it and put a copy on my iPod and burn another on a CD, and walk around the house, and/or listen to it in my car, over and over for several days, until I start absorbing the content naturally and get used to my own voice speaking the words aloud. At that point I also begin to notice phrases that don’t sound quite right, or things that are missing. Usually ten or twelve revised recordings follow, trimming the whole thing down to under a minute. I try to be finished with that at least a month before the conference, but I have sometimes made changes a couple of days before I leave for Austin (where I have given all my oral pitches so far).
[Note: 6-23-2014 — I did it again. I made a few changes to this year’s version of my Jagged Man pitch yesterday, so I only have a couple more days to learn the new version before I leave for Austin. Not a good idea.]
Do you have a particular process that works for you when you’re constructing a pitch?