How to Pitch your Novel: Writing a High Concept Pitch

Way back when, I went to school for business, specializing in Accounting. At my school, we had very complex, Hogwartsian politics between the four specialties.

First, there’s Accounting. We were clearly Gryffindor. We were those brave souls who faced our enemies with the cry of “no, it’s not in the budget”. We were the unsung heroes of every single business transaction that has ever occurred ever. (I may or may not be a tad biased.)

The next two everyone got along with. HR were Ravenclaw: annoyingly in the know, but all around useful. Operations were the Hufflepuff of the group. They worked like machines, got more done than we even knew was occurring, and got far too little thanks for their efforts.

(Bear with me, by the way, I’m going somewhere with this.)

Finally, we have Marketing. If you know your Hogwarts, you know which house is missing. Yup, Marketing was Slytherin. They stood on the opposite end of the spectrum from Accounting, with opposite tasks, personalities, and goals. Since that time, I have come to appreciate the endeavors of our Marketing Professionals, by the way. These were the post high school politics of kids who thought they knew everything.

Because of this divide, there was a special relationship between the Accounting students and the Marketing students. I don’t know if it’s the same everywhere, but I’ve always wondered. 

Needless to say, I’m not well versed in Marketing. So, when the time came to SELL my work, and terms like ‘pitch’ and ‘query letter’ and ‘high concept’ were thrown around, you can imagine how I felt.

I, being an intrepid Gryffindor, did what I do best. I evaluated the problem line by line until I understood (at least in a vague sense – remember my aforementioned relationship with Marketing) what I needed to do.

What is a High Concept Pitch Anyway?

I’m sure a bonefide Slytherin (ahem, Marketing Professional) could answer this better than I can. But I’m gonna answer anyway, from the perspective of someone who- like many of you- wished writing the damn novel was the end of it.

A high concept pitch is a one sentence summary of your story. It’s used in all kinds of startups – projects, companies, novels. It’s the tagline that will make a publisher go “ohhh” when they ask what your story is about.

Here are some examples (drawn from www.copyblogger.com/rd-high-concept-pitch/):

  • Backdraft: Top Gun in a firehouse
  • Ghost: A man dies and becomes his wife’s guardian angel
  • Liar Liar: A lawyer is forced to tell the truth for 24 hours
  • Hook: What if Peter Pan grew up?

Get the idea? Simple, right? How hard can one sentence be?

I thought so too. Then I sat down to actually write mine. And let me tell you, summarizing a hundred thousand plus words covering veiled political intrigue and a unique magic system into one sentence is HARD.

There’s a lot of good advice out there though. Likely written by Marketing Professionals. Here are some of the tips I found helpful. And bear in mind, I have a special dislike of marketing, as previously explained, so if I can do it, anyone can.

Not every idea is High Concept. And that’s ok.

This is important to understand. ‘High concept’ covers those ideas that appeal to the mass market in a concise and clean way. If you’re having trouble summarizing your sprawling epic into one sentence, it probably isn’t high concept. But there isn’t anything wrong with that. Harry Potter, for example, isn’t high concept. So if you fall into this, don’t despair.

If you realize your story is a bit too complicated to fall into the definition, still do your best to come up with a one sentence pitch. If needed, focus on the most important struggle of your story- the struggle that is resolved at the climax- and leave the rest for the synopsis. As long as you give a clean idea of what your story is about, you’ll be ok. As long as it’s well written. Bringing me to the next tip.

Take Time

This pitch is probably the most important sentence of your entire novel. Don’t rush it. Brainstorm, write a first draft, sit on it then come back to it later and see if you still like it. Take the time to do it right. This is the sentence that will likely open your query letter, and will be your response to the inevitable question of “so what’s your book about, anyway?” It’s worth taking the time.

Know your Genre

It’s important to know your genre, so you understand what sells. Look around and see which books have been successfully published, and what they have in common. Find those traits in your own work and put them forward. But put them forward with your own spin.

Knowing your genre also lets you see the holes in the market. For example, I write contemporary fantasy. There are lots and lots (and lots) of books about vampires and werewolves and fae. Like, lots. Clearly there’s a reason for that, but I went a different route, so I want to showcase that I’m not just the next vampire novel in the pile, while still highlighting the common theme I share with the genre. All in one sentence.

Learn your genre, and this will fall into place.

Use. Every. Word.

You have one sentence. Use it well. Don’t bog it down with useless information or unnecessary description. You aren’t trying to write a book here – you’re not even trying to sell your writing style yet. You’re selling an idea. Keep this in perspective. It should be simple – “This is what it is and this is why people want it.” Any more than that is in the wrong place.

Break it down to the Elements

Every story is different, with different themes and a different focus. Do some brainstorming to decide what makes your story what it is. For example, the points I needed to include were my politics, my particular flavour of fantasy, and a clear modern time period. So, I made a list of these elements and brainstormed some good words to describe each. Once I had them, it was easier to craft a clear sentence that hit all my points in a compelling way.

Easy, right? No, it’s not. I was banging my head against my desk for far too long. But I got there in the end.

Writing a pitch can be daunting, and in a weird way, a little offensive. After all, you put so much of yourself into this body of work, and now you need to convince people to even read it? Try to swallow the punches and accept that it’s just part of the market.

When you write your pitch, have a clear view of what you’re selling and why people want it, and don’t get discouraged when you need to beat the words into place. Novels don’t like being squished into sentences, so they need a little forceful convincing to get there. It doesn’t need to come together easily – you just need to pretend it did.

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