CJ Lyons on Pitching–part one

Join award winning medical suspense author CJ Lyons as she explains the secrets to successful pitching, tips to engage an editor or agent, and reveals the creation of a high concept.

CJ has received requests for manuscripts every time she pitched. She’ll help you feel more comfortable during your pitch session and more confident with your pitch. Come prepared with a one paragraph summary of your manuscript, your pitch, and if you have one, your high concept.

The Pitch is a writer’s best friend.

Why? Because it’s what you’ll use every time someone asks you to tell them about your book. Agents, editors, elevator folks, Great Aunt Martha. Whoever.

So you need to polish it and since it’s verbal, shorter is better. No more than 25 words total, 10-15 is better.

Short, sweet, memorable. That’s what you’re going for—hey, I didn’t say it would be easy!

There are several different types of pitches. Here’s how I define them:

–an elevator pitch, a very quick, easily memorable way to let someone who has never read your work know what it’s going to be like (note: not what it’s about, but what they can expect).

LIFELINESFor my new medical suspense novel, LIFELINES, it is: ER meets Grey’s Anatomy

Implying that it has the edgy realism and non-stop action of ER, but also focuses on relationships like Grey’s Anatomy.

I think elevator pitches were invented by all those ADD Hollywood types

It’s your down and dirty answer to: what is your book like? It’s a comparison, not an explanation or description.

The trick with elevator pitches is to use something universally known (like Indiana Jones) or something current and trendy. You need to use comparisons your audience will understand, nod their heads and say, oh yeah, that sounds like something I’d read

–another pitch is more descriptive. Start with your book’s hook line (also known as “tag line” or “log line”).

These are those throw away lines that scream at you from book covers. Also look at movie posters and ads–they use hook lines a lot.

JAWS: don’t go into the water, ALIENS: in space no one can hear you scream, etc.

These hook lines are useful in query letters to hook the reader and transition into your blurb.

For LIFELINES, the hook line is: July 1st, the most dangerous day of the year.

Notice what a hook line does that’s different than an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a comparison. A hook line gets the reader to ASK questions, builds that emotional velcro by getting them involved.

For LIFELINES, readers might ask: why is July 1st the most dangerous day of the year? What will happen then? Who is in danger? What kind of danger? Etc

These hook lines are also great to use on websites, business cards, etc. Often, they’ll end up on the book’s front cover.

Okay, so you have a hook line. Sometimes that’s all you need, the conversation will evolve naturally from there. Other times you use it simply to attract attention and move into a more detailed description. So be prepared, either way.

–high concept pitch: also quick and dirty, but here you’re going farther than a simple comparison.

Instead of comparisons you use ICONs or universal concepts to connect your fictional world to the world of your audience. This creates emotional velcro with your audience, leading them to be interested enough to want to know more!

To do this, you need to do two things:

First, find a hook. This is the unique spin that you have put on your story. This means narrowing your search to one small part of your story. Start with your blurb, usually the hook will be apparent there. If not, keep looking

Basically you’re boiling your novel down to one and only one unique concept–whatever it is about your story that will create an immediate emotional connection or spark interest.

Second, tie this unique hook to the larger world by using universal icons and feelings, implying that society at large is affected. Something that brings this hook specific to the time and place of your novel into the ordinary world of your audience.

You’re building a bridge here, connections, emotional velcro….whatever you want to call it, it needs to be so easy to grasp that anyone can feel it immediately.

One of my favorite high concepts: ALIEN’s. It was: Jaws on a spaceship.

The unique hook = spaceship. Unique because no one has been on a spaceship, it’s something unfamiliar to the ordinary audience.

The universal icon = monster (Jaws). Everyone has had childhood fears of monsters under the bed. We all know and understand fear, nightmares, terror. In fact, a large segment of the movie going audience (Alien’s target audience, in fact!!) pays good money to feel these emotions!

Add the two together and we have a universal fear of monsters combined with no where to run (trapped on a spaceship). A powerful one-two punch!!! Feel how it evokes an immediate visceral response as well as intrigue???

The audience hearing this high concept immediately squirm in their seats, ask themselves: where can the people on the ship run? How can they fight the monster?

AND, the movie makers tied this high concept into their advertising by using a tag line of: In space, no one can hear you scream….

But note—there is no mention of character names, no long, involved psychological profiles, nothing except the bare essentials needed to pique the audience’s attention.

That’s the beauty of the high concept, it strips everything away except what you need to intrigue your audience.

Another example. David Morrell’s recent book, SCAVENGERS used as its high concept: a scavenger hunt (unique hook) to the death (universal concept). The tag line used in advertising: Some secrets should remain buried…

Pretty obvious David’s audience are lovers of thrillers/suspense, and wouldn’t that audience immediately respond to that high concept? Be intrigued, think, hmm…I want to read that book, wondering what this master of suspense has in store for them.

Stephen King is also brilliant with high concepts. CUJO: rabid dog (hook) terrorizes town (universal fear). SALEMs LOT: vampires (unique hook–at the time) terrorize town (universal fear), CARRIE: prom queen (hook) terrorizes town….okay, anyone think King is writing sweet romance? Or has he earned his title of the King of Terror?

So much depends on knowing your audience that it’s hard for anyone else who hasn’t read the entire book to create a high concept for you. It all depends who your target audience is and what kind of emotional experience you want to promise them.

Often, because the high concept is such a tiny taste of the entire book, as writers, we get frustrated because we’re looking at the big picture. We just spent months with these characters, we want to share them with our audience, expand on them, not boil them down to a bare skeleton

But think of it this way–if you boil down a compelling high concept then the reader will spend hours with your characters and story as they read….after they pay their money for the book, of course, lol!

The high concept isn’t a synopsis or blurb, it’s merely a way to give your audience a sneak peak of the emotions they’ll feel while reading your book.

And not every book lends itself to a high concept, so don’t get too frustrated if this doesn’t seem to fit your work!

But no matter which kind of pitch you use, you’ll probably need a more fleshed out description. Something that conveys very quickly what kind of book this is, what it’s about (or who it’s about) and what stands in their way.

Again your goal isn’t to give away everything but rather to raise interest and more questions in the listener’s mind.

Try starting with your theme or premise, add in your main character and their goal and main obstacle.

This is hard, very, very hard!! Be patient, keep trying, brainstorming power words, re-arranging and most importantly practicing saying them aloud. Pitches are verbal so they need to sound smooth, natural, not awkward or stilted.

The only way to learn how to do these is dive in and give it a try!

Thanks for reading!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doc, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about. CJ loves sharing the secret life of an urban trauma center with readers. She also loves breaking the rules; her debut medical suspense novel, LIFELINES, is cross-genre to the extreme, combining women’s fiction with medical suspense with thriller pacing with romantic elements and is told from the point of view of the women of Angels of Mercy’s Medical Center. Publisher’s Weekly proclaimed LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), “a spot-on debut….a breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller” and Romantic Times made it a Top Pick. Contact her at http://www.cjlyons.net


17 thoughts on “CJ Lyons on Pitching–part one

  1. Great suggestions, C.J.! But I’m curious, too. Do you brainstorm with your agent about your book projects and tag lines, or do you find it easier to work without the distraction of others?

    Looking forward to hearing you at OWFI in May, and Lifelines is an excellent read!

  2. CJ, thanks for sharing today. You’ve given me a lot of thoughts to work on. I’m working on a new idea, in a different direction than I’ve gone before, and I needed to find the right way to pitch the concept. I’m going to use your ideas and see what I can come up with. Thanks again — and I can’t wait to read your book.

  3. You make pitching sound almost do-able, C.J. I’m going to print out your suggestions and use them…if I can get out of chicken mode long enough to make a pitch. One on one with an editor or agent is really difficult for me. Do you have any suggestions to help overcome this problem?
    Thanks. Paula

  4. CJ — this is fabulous. You have given me good, solid ideas to work on, not only for pitching, but for my books in general. I really appreciate you doing this, and I’m going to print this off, too! ;) I think it’s a good idea to keep the high concept in mind even as I write. Is that what you do?

  5. Your ideas are terrific.

    However, my mind goes blank when I start to prepare a pitch. One problem is finding anything to compare my novel with. With all my reading and T.V. mystery/suspense/detective watching, I can’t find anything that will compute.



  6. Hi guys, sorry I’m late–I was at a signing and came home to no internet. Hopefully it will be fixed soon.

    In the meantime I have a few minutes at a cafe and will answer questions then drop by later and tomorrow–so feel free to keep them coming, I’ll catch up!

    Brainstorming pitches? I usually have some idea how I want to pitch the books and then run it past my agent. Sometimes we’ll fine tune it–for her benefit as well when she takes them out to editors.

    Tessa, glad to help! Next month I’ll be discussing how to approach editors/agents during the pitch session so that might help as well.

    Paula–you most definitely have to come back next month, we’ll quell those jitters! If you can’t wait, I have the article, Secrets to Pitching as a free bonus to anyone who signs up for my mailing list (you can always unsub if you like)

    Gloria, I keep a simple “log line”–a one sentence concept of the book in mind throughout. Sometimes it’s not even a sentence but a concept or the theme. Anything to keep a seat of the pantzer like me focused, lol!

    Thanks, Amy! Glad you enjoyed it!

    Vivian, if you don’t have good comparisons, then don’t use that kind of pitch, try one of the others. And have fun with it!!!

    Okay, I have to go now but will check back hopefully later tonight (Hargray willing) and will also check in tomorrow!

    Thanks everyone!!!

  7. CJ,

    Vivian gave me this and I decided to join the discussion. I have a unique high concept pitch for my paranormal romance “Ghost of Killough Castle”. How about….

    “Ghost & Mrs. Muir” for the modern age.


  8. Thanks, C.J. I’ll be here next month (God willing and the creek don’t rise any more ). Meantime, where do I sign up for your mailing list?

  9. Shay, that works for me–that’s one of my favorite movies!

    You might want to make sure your target audience is old enough to have seen the movie, lol!

  10. Paula,
    thanks for asking. Just go to my website (http://www.cjlyons.net) and there’s a sign up box on the lower lefthand corner of each page.

    It’s a quarterly newsletter with a chance to win free stuff with each issue.

    Hope the creek stops rising!

  11. CJ,

    I look forward to your session at the OWFI conference in May. Thanks for posting here with us. I’ve done one pitch for a historical romance back in October. The agent ultimately requested a partial but then rejected it because she didn’t “love it enough.” Oh well. I have no doubt it’ll find a home. At the same time, though, I know I didn’t do very well on that pitch, though I did the best I could at the time. Your tips here give me something solid to work from. Thanks. :)


  12. Thanks for these suggestions. They have been so helpful. I’ve yet to do a pitch and the thought makes me very nervous.
    Somehow I have managed to ignore the necessity for the brief ones up to this point. I can’t seem to get my mind around a high concept for my historical romance. As for the elevator pitch, I had hoped for a very tall building ;-D

    I look forward to hearing you at the OWFI conference in May. Yes, and I’m needing to read that next post of yours, too!!


  13. CJ, I was thinking more the TV show with Hope Lange from the 1960’s rather than the movie with Greer Garson. Absolutely adored Edward Mulhare and still do.


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