Friday, June 6, 2008

Secrets to a Perfect Pitch by Guest Blogger CJ Lyons

Please join me in welcoming 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. 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

CJ is a rather recent addition to the LowCountry Romance writers, but you couldn't tell from her level of involvement--or her feeling like a member of our group! She has taught classes at Thrillerfest, RWA National, and, of course, here in Charleston. Her first book, Lifelines, came out almost two months ago and I'm in the middle of devouring it right now (I go in order when reading my TBR pile--I'm a little bit behind). So, please enjoy...

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.

If you'd like feedback on your own work, feel free to share a one paragraph summary of your manuscript, your pitch, and if you have one, your high concept in the comments.

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).

For 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!


Lexie O'Neill said...

Thanks for blogging with us! I've just started a new WIP so starting us off with a pitch is, I tend to write so original:) there aren't any movies to refer new WIP is called The Unshifted and it's about a society built on a caste system based on what you transform into...and, if you don't shift, you drop down a class where the lowest is an underworld of the unshifted. The hero is from a higher tier and drops down to the Emperor's army and the heroine drops down to the unshifted--they are too far apart to be together.
Whew! Did I warn you that I am a morning person?
Thanks for blogging!

CJ Lyons said...

Sounds like a great premise, Lexie--tons of potential for a high concept.

You have your unique concept of a caste system for shape-shifters (I'm assuming from what you describe)....where's the universal icon, though?

Is it the romance--but having a romantic conflict is assumed (if you're billing this as romance), so perhaps instead, it comes from the common enemy they face????

Figure that out and you'll have a fantastic pitch!

Terry Odell said...

Hi, CJ -
Don't know if it'll help anyone's jitters, but I've found that agents and editors at conferences are predisposed to want to like what you're saying, and the majority will request pages, which is what it's all about anyway. They'll agree that they can't tell much from a pitch; it's words on the page that will sell the book.

My 'best' pitch was truly an elevator pitch. I had no clue the man I was chatting with was the acquisitions editor for Five Star. Since we were at a writer's conference, talking about books was natural. I was surprised when he handed me his card and told me to drop by his table in the pitch room the next day.

CJ Lyons said...

Terry, you're absolutely right! 90% of the time, professionals taking pitches at conferences will ask for the material--unless it's wildly inappropriate for them.

For more tips on how to approach agents and editors, I have an article available on my website ( that is a free bonus when you subscribe to my newsletter--you can always unsub after you get it, if you like, lol!

Magnolia said...

Hi CJ,

I'm another Charlestonian ; - )

I write both romantic thrillers and women's fiction. My pitch line for what I'm working on now is:

'Some secrets are too painful to keep, some too dangerous to speak of.'

Too general?


CJ Lyons said...

Hi, Sonya, thanks for stopping by!

I think that might work as a tag line (those one liners on the front covers of books) and maybe as the start to a pitch--but you're right, it is a little vague.

Is there anything in your story you could use to hook the reader? Something unique about one of your characters and the type of secret she's keeping?

Remember, the pitch doesn't have to tell the entire story or all the plot lines, it just has to give your audience enough to intrigue them and make them start to ask questions, want to know more.

Good luck!

Janet Reid said...

I'd caution against using television shows as the comparisons to books. A lot (some?, just me?) of us don't know what those shows are.

On the other hand, who knows what people have read or seen at the movies, so any kind of comparison can come up short.

I'm a fan of pitch lines like 'July 1st is the most dangerous day of the year" because it stands by itself.

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Janet! I agree--you really need to know your audience and target any pitch to them.

I'm not a big fan of the comparison pitch either, but seems like it resonates with people who don't want to stop and think about what your book is really about (like sales reps)'s a quick promise of the emotional experience an audience can expect, but no real meat to it, lol!

Mel Hiers said...

Welcome to TM, CJ! And thank you for your helpful article.

You know, I hadn't thought of making a media comparison when pitching. I'm submitting/pitching my ATIV novel at the moment. I suppose the closest I can get without lots of brainstorming would be Kinsey Millhone meets Xena. Yeah, that needs some work. :-)

I am working with a hook, though. Most people don't know that gods and monsters live next door. It's up to Anna Martin to keep it that way.

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Mel! Sounds like a great project--that hook definitely makes me want to know more.

Not sure you need the comparison type of blurb at all, not if the hook works.

Nice job!

Terry Odell said...

I used "Pollyanna meets Delta Force" for one pitch. It garnered a bit of interest, but I also saw a blog posting that someone had seen the sale announcement and would 'give it a pass' because Pollyanna would be too sugary sweet. Well, she's not -- but I wanted an image to show the heroine had a positive attitude. Things will resonate differently, even when the image is recognized.

CJ Lyons said...

LOL! Terry, isn't it amazing how folks can give your work an automatic "no" without reading a single word?

Guess that's why we work so hard at pitches and hooks so we'll get to "yes"!

One well-known book blogger saw the PM announcement of LIFELINES' sale which mentioned that there were four women as main characters....she immediately riffed on how it must be some kind of multi-partner lesbian erotica.

Of course it's not, rather it's a medical thriller that dares to break the rules by using only female pov characters. Something that just never occurred to her....

Kieran said...


Thanks for a wonderful lesson on pitching! I am definitely going to take notes on what you said and take it to the National RWA conference. My roommates and I usually sit on our beds and have a "pre-conference" pitching session--this article will jumpstart that whole process and get us properly focused!

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Kieran, glad you found it useful.

As I mentioned before, you guys might also find my article on face-to-face pitching helpful--it was too long to include everything here. But you can find it on my website,

Mel Hiers said...

Rock on! Thanks CJ!

Terry, I would definitely read Pollyanna meets Delta Force. Sometimes thriller heroines get a bit too dark for me, and one with a positive attitude sounds refreshing!

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Mel -- it comes out in December from Five Star Expressions, and is called WHEN DANGER CALLS.

What I ended up using as my pitch, (not my 'high concept' -- hate that term, btw) was this:

If someone asks single mother Frankie Castor to clear a room, she'll smile and find a vacuum cleaner. Ryan Harper uses a gun. Can they work together when their lives depend on it?

CJ Lyons said...

Oh, Terry, I like that! Great hook!

Folks always find something they "hate"--writing synopsis or finding a hook or developing a high concept...but they're all just tools.

You find what works for you (as you obviously have!) and use it. Go with your strengths instead of fighting an uphill battle, I always say!

Paty Jager said...


I've been working on a pitch for my WIP and your thoughts,though I've heard some of them before, seemed to click with me.


CJ Lyons said...

Glad to help, Paty! Best of luck!

Savanna Kougar said...

CJ, what a great learning post for me. I can usually come up with good blurbs. However, I've never actually pitched any of my novels. This gives me better ways to talk with just the people you meet who want to know what your book is about. I've never figured how to do that well.
Plus, this is good for a web presence like Terry was speaking about.
BTW, Mel & Terry, both your pitches are fantastic. I enjoyed them and they made me smile!
I'm going to have to start thinking about how to do this.
How about "Open the door to Blue Paradise, where every erotic dream comes true."
Of course, that may not work in some circles!

CJ Lyons said...

Savanna, Glad you found the post helpful.

Love the tag line--that would be a good one for a website or business card!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey CJ--great blog, and so useful! I'm still trying to create the perfect hook,and your advice, as always, is stellar.

I agree with Janet--and you--that the comparison pitch can be tricky.

I was briefly tempted by describing my main character as "Murphy Brown meets Nora Charles." Then someone asked me: Who's Murphy Brown? Who's Nora Charles?

Ah. And now I'll go find the Geritol.

CJ Lyons said...

Hi, Hank! Thanks for stopping by--I'm so glad you found the post helpful.

Hmmm...a pitch for your books, how about a "Lois Lane who doesn't need a Superman"???

Just an idea, lol!

Lexie O'Neill said...

Just able to check back in (a Mom by day) may be asleep by now! Thanks for the help--perhaps developing a pitch/hook early in your writing can help the plot--I know I need a common enemy, but right now it's the system they fight. I've seen it in historical novels...maybe it will work in a paranormal?
Thanks again for a great blog!

rebecca cantrell said...

10-15 words? *gulp* I thought I was doing well to come in under 40. :) Here's mine: “A Trace of Smoke” follows a crime reporter through 1931 Berlin as she searches for her brother's killer, a trail that leads from the city's dark underbelly to the top ranks of the rising Nazi party.

But it's clearly too long. I need something glib and shorter. I've played with "What if Hitler's right hand man were in love with your brother?" but not sure if it works. And a tag line. No idea. I'll go back and read CJs brilliant post again for inspiration. Thanks, CJ!

Lexie O'Neill said...

Thanks for breaking down the art of pitching by type of pitch and
explaining when it's appropriate to use each pitch. I've been looking
for just those distinctions because I'm assisting with pitch sessions at the Moonlight & Magnolias conference in Atlanta this October (Georgia Romance Writers). Yours was a helpful post, and I've recommended it on the
Guppies-SinC discussion list.
Suzanne Adair (

Lexie O'Neill said...

I posted that last comment because the sender emailed it to me--she couldn't get it to post:)
Have a great day!

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi CJ, thanks for an interesting blog. I don't think anyone likes pitching but it's useful to have a breakdown of the different types of pitch for different occasions. Your new book sounds interesting. Looking forward to reading it!