Pitch Writing 101: What’s at Stake?

Pitches are hard.

I could just end the post there and you’d all feel super validated, right? And I am all about validation. That dry eyeball feeling you get from staring at the screen too long? Totally normal. The way your fingers curl in on themselves and you’re not sure if it’s because your body wants to end the torture session you call “Pitch Writing” or because they’ve taken on a life of their own and are thinking about clawing your eyeballs right out of your head?

Okay, maybe that’s just me.

But while I firmly believe any author who claims “pitch writing is FUN!” is a couple sentences short of a full paragraph, there are a few tips I think might prove helpful to you. Being a long-time co-host of the annual Pitch Slam contest doesn’t mean I’m an expert, of course, but what it does mean is that I’ve read a lot of pitches over the years.

Here are my thoughts based on those experiences. What makes a pitch work (or not) for me:


94.37% of the time, stakes are the ideal way to hook your reader. What’s on the line for your character? What do they want more than anything in the world? What will happen if they fail?

Start with the basic formula:


And then refine from there.

Stakes are vital, but so is knowing who they’re happening to. For the love of words, use your character’sNAME. Please. Not all the characters, of course. We shouldn’t have to swim through character soup to get your plotline. But if your story is about a seventeen-year-old gymnast named Steve, make sure those details are in your pitch. Let us know who we should be rooting for.


There’s a big difference between intrigue and mystery, but time and again I see people confuse the two. Avoid vagueness at all costs.

For Example:

Pitch #1: When she went to work she had no idea the danger she’d be walking into. Now, she must overcome a dangerous foe, or the worst day of her life might be her last.

 Pitch #2: Twenty-three-year-old bank teller Maria Santos yearns to get home to her infant son, but if she can’t get through to the bomb-wielding psycho robbing the bank, she and the forty-two other hostages are done for.

The first pitch is very mysterious, isn’t it? So mysterious, we don’t know the character’s name, occupation, life situation, who her “dangerous foe” is, why this is the “worst day of her life,” or why her life is in danger. Funny thing? Pitch #2 only uses two more words than pitch number one does, and yet communicates ten times as much information.

Mystery is not your friend. Don’t try to surprise the reader with the secret of what your book is about. That’s what the pitch is supposed to tell them!


As I’m always saying to my children: Use Your Words. Going under the expected word count can do as much damage as going over. Remember Steve the Gymnast who I mentioned earlier? How much more powerful does that character introduction become if I call him “Steve the reluctant gymnast” or “Steve the singing gymnast” or “Steve the blackmailing gymnast?” A single word can make a world of difference.

Strive for perfection (and know you’re still awesome even if you don’t achieve it). Read your pitch out loud. Write it out by hand. Have friends proofread for you. Share it with people who know nothing about your story. If your pitch has only had one pair of eyes on it, odds are it’s not ready yet.

Comp Titles.

Whoo boy, is this is a tricky subject. Some writers just love using comp titles in pitches. They can be remarkably effective in a query (I encourage all my editing clients to use them), because they demonstrate that you know your genre. My personal opinion though? Comps usually don’t belong in a pitch. You have a limited word count, and I think those words should be about your story, not someone else’s. That said, if they’re the perfect comparisons, they CAN work. I’ve seen them work. But only about 5% of the time.

Don’t assume you’re in the 5%. Get second, third, fourth, and fifth opinions.

Back to number 1 on my list. Stakes. All the coolest people are talking about them. They’re missing in pitches. They’re missing in queries. The question, “But what’s at stake?” gets lobbed around a lot, because stakes create empathy.

Knowing the main character has something to lose helps the reader invest themselves in the story on an emotional level. And when you shine the spotlight on “If Main Character doesn’t do BLANK, then DOOM will happen,” the suspense intensifies by a factor of 57% (-ish). Stakes are the match that lights the “What’s going to happen?!” fire.

So how do you figure out what the stakes of your story are?

Try framing it as a “What if?” What happens if your Main Character fails? What if they don’t save the world? What if they don’t let themselves fall in love? What if the bus driver never solves the mystery of why he wakes up with a new tattoo every morning?





Picture a different ending for these popular stories. Picture Harry failing and Voldemort triumphing. Picture the havoc a functioning Death Star could wreak on the galaxy—the innumerable lives it could snuff out. Picture sweet little Wilbur dead and butchered. Picture him sizzling in a frying pan.

That feeling of unease you’re feeling (assuming you let me boss you around, your imagination is functional, and you have a heart) is what you’re shooting for in your stakes-based pitches, and in your query. Make the reader uncomfortable. Introduce them to your amazing, unique, memorable main character, show them what that character wants more than anything, then make them sick with worry over the potential consequences.

Not all stories have happy endings. Make your reader terrified that yours might be one of them.


kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

A Writer’s Guide to Online Contests

For aspiring writers, there are several different ways to connect with agents (and editors) to represent your work. By far the most common is cold querying (which, contrary to what some believe, does work). You can meet agents at writing conferences (I did)–and you can participate in online writing contests.

I love a good writing contest. Even though that’s not how I got my agent, online contests were a big part of my querying process.

Right now, with the Pitch Wars mentor blog hop going on and the Pitch Wars submission window just around the corner (August 17th), it seems like a great time to revisit online contests. (Full disclosure: I’m mentoring Pitch Wars this year. It’s a great contest, and if you have a polished manuscript, you should consider entering!)


Why should you enter online writing contests?

1. Get feedback

Most writing contests are a great way to get feedback–from judges, other writers, agents, even editors. Even if you don’t get “picked” for a contest, you can learn something by looking at the entries that do get in. Are they doing something different in the query? In their pages? Every contest I’ve entered has taught me something about how my pages are working.

2. Meet other writers

One of my favorite part of writing contests is meeting other writers. During Pitch Wars last fall, someone started a facebook group for the contestants. That group has been a mine of support, information, and feedback. (They even helped me with this post!) Not every contest will do that, but a lot of contests have a heavy twitter presence: find other authors hanging out on the hashtag and start chatting (#pitchwars, #pitmad, and more).

3. Get a sense of the market

Contests can be helpful to get a sense for what else is currently being queried. By looking at the winners of different contests, you can see what genres agents are interested in and which are oversaturated. Contests can also give you a sense of how competitive your work is: in my first online contest, I was shocked by how good some of the other entries were, and I learned to set my bar much higher.

4. Find representation

Of course, the goal of many of these contests is to find an agent who’s interested in your work. Some agents only accept work from contests, conference attendees, or referrals, so they can be a place to put your work before someone who might not otherwise see it. Sometimes contests get agents to see your work in a new light–I’ve had agents request who had previously rejected my query.

But remember, not all good agents participate in contests (mine doesn’t). Not all contest agents are good agents–do your due diligence before submitting to anyone who requests! And not all requests lead to offers.

For me, finding an agent would be the icing on the cake of a good contest–it’s great to have, but you can get a lot out of a contest even without that (see above).


What contests are out there?

Obviously, a post like this can’t be fully comprehensive. But here are some contests that I and some of my writer friends think are worthwhile. If you’re looking for a list of judged contests, like the RWA’s Golden Heart award, here’s a great list.

Monthly Contests

Miss Snark’s First Victim also hosts a monthly secret agent contest. MSFV invites all those who enter to comment on other people’s entries–I know Tasha, Elaine and I have all participated and had some good feedback this way. MSFV was one of the first contests I actually won–even though that partial request turned into a “no” it was a good confidence boost for me.

First Five Pages, sponsored by Adventures in YA Publishing, accepts the first five pages of a MG or YA novel the first Saturday of every month. Martina Boone, Lisa Gail Green, and/or a guest mentor will offer feedback on how the beginning is working. (This isn’t necessarily a contest, but a great way to get feedback). 

Operation Awesome’s Mystery Agent Contests: the first of each month, Operation Awesome hosts a contest where a mystery agent (identity revealed when the contest is over) picks their favorite pitch from that month’s entries. The entry requirements vary by agent. (The last one was in April, so follow their blog or twitter account to see when they start up again). 


Annual or Semi-Annual Contests

Pitch Wars might be the best known of the annual contests: last fall they had over 1200 applicants and expect that many or more this fall. Hosted by the indefatigable Brenda Drake (if you’re not already following her on twitter @brendadrake, you should! She knows tons and she hosts awesome contests), applicants are invited to submit their query and first chapter to five mentors. Each mentor (an agented or published author) chooses one mentee and helps them revise their *entire* manuscript before posting a pitch and first page for the agent round. I’m a mentor this year (for YA) and I couldn’t be more excited! Entries are due August 17th (though Brenda may open the submission window early). Check out #PitchWars for writing tips and more contest information.

Pitch Madness is also hosted by Brenda Drake (along with her minions and slush zombies). Here again writers submit a pitch and their first 250, then the contest coordinators chose 64 to vie for agent attention. This usually alternates with Pitch Wars (a fall contest) and is held in the Spring.The contest schedule for both Pitch Wars and Pitch Madness can be found here.

 Adventures in YA Publishing has hosted a variety of different contests. Last fall, I participated in #pitchplus5. Fifty applicants submitted their first five pages, which were then posted for comments from the community. Bloggers picked the top 25, which were revised and posted again with a short pitch. Published authors picked the top ten, which were again polished and posted for the agent round. Their most recent version of this was a pitch plus the first page, also with feedback. I had a lot of fun with this contest last fall: I got some great feedback and several agent requests (a few that turned into offers)–and the two of us who were the grand prize winners now both have three-book contracts. I’m just sayin’. 

Write Inclusively is a brand new contest focusing on manuscripts that address at least one diverse aspect: class, race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, etc. The submission window opens September 4-6.

Pitch Slam, a newer contest hosted by L.L. McKinney is a bi-annual contest (usually March and October) involving 35 word pitches and the first 250 words of a manuscript, which you revise for the agent round.

Nightmare on Query Street has been held the last two Octobers; I assume it will go again this fall but I’m not sure. The entries required standard genre and wordcount information, the first page, and a paragraph about the main character’s biggest fear. Follow the hashtag #NightmareQuery for more information.

Nest Pitch, like the Writer’s Voice, asks for short submissions (35 word pitch, 300 word entry) that are then claimed by various teams who compete against each other for the most agent requests. In the past, this contest has been held in April.

The Writer’s Voice, hosted by Mother.Write.Repeat, along with LoveYA, Cupid’s Literary Connection and Brenda Drake each May. For this contest, each of the sponsoring blogs chooses a “team” of strong writing entries and compete for agent attention. One of the cool things about this contest was that even those who weren’t chosen had an opportunity to have their submission posted on a blog and get feedback from other entrants. Follow @monica_bw for details.
Query Kombat involves 64 entries, facing off against one another in single-elimination tournament style. Fair warning: while I have writer friends who have done well in this contest, others have found the elimination style hard on their writing ego. This contest is held every few months, so follow the blog for updated information.

Pitch to Publication is another contest that, like Pitch Wars, offers a full manuscript critique for selected entries, followed by an agent round and a publisher’s round. This contest is currently ongoing, so follow Samantha Fountain’s blog for details of the next contest.

Miss Snark’s First Victim retired her The Baker’s Dozen last fall, but she periodically does in-house critiques and rumor has it there’s something in the works to replace Baker’s Dozen, so keep an eye on her site. 

Twitter Pitch Parties

There are lots of different twitter pitch parties out there, which generally give you a window (usually 24 hours) to tweet pitches using a hashtag. You can search the hashtags for more information. Some of the most common include

  • #pitmad (following Pitch Madness), 
  • #sffpit (exclusively for Sci-fi/fantasy), 
  • #adpit (for adult novels), 
  • #pitchmas (usually July and December), 
  • #kidpit  November 12, for children’s books (picture books-YA)

Gina Denny has an awesome post on twitter pitches that you  need to read if you’re thinking of pitching.
Not enough for you? Here’s an even more comprehensive list.

What contests have you entered and enjoyed? What questions do you have about writing contests?

The Craft of Pitching

Happy Friday, everyone!

So I thought I’d talk a little bit about pitching. Not the baseball kind. The kind you can do in your pajamas, sipping apricot nectar, and scrolling through twitter. Have you seen the plethora of pitching opportunities that are available for authors these days? It is OUTstanding! (See what I did there? Did you??)

I could go through the many and varied opportunities over the course of the next six months. But John Berkowitz has already done that. You can see a pretty comprehensive list on his blog here.

No, what we need to do is MASTER that pitch so that when decide to participate in one of these sessions, you’ll be ready.

From what I can gather (and having participated in a couple of these myself), you’ll need to be armed with:
1. A full query letter
2. A twitter-length pitch (less than 140 characters WITH the required hashtags!)
3. A 35-word pitch
4. The first 250 words of your MS
5. Anything else for that particular contest

Phew! Right? I mean, come on. That’s a lot to prepare in one day when you suddenly find out about the pitch contest. So my first piece of advice is to plan ahead.

Plan Ahead:

1. Pay attention on twitter. If you’re a writer about to query, or thinking about querying in the next few months, there are some hashtags you should probably be following. My favorite is #MSWL. I also like #tenqueries

2. Choose the pitch contests that seem like a good fit for your book. Resist the temptation to blanket the Internet during every event. Pay attention to who’s participating and what they’re looking for. Trust me when I say that no agent is better than an agent that isn’t a good match.

3. Which all leads me to the next step in your Plan for World Domination. Get your pitches ready!

Getting Your Pitches Ready:

1. I always advise this first: Get help! Email your writer buddies and beta readers and ask them if they’ll read your query, first 250, and other pitch material. You should probably never just start throwing wild pitches out there…

2. The query letter. Oh, there’s too much to list here on how to write a query letter. There are scads of places around the Internet to find some tips and tricks. My favorite? Elana Johnson’s formula of the hook, the setup, the conflict, and the consequence.

3. The twitter pitch. Having written these myself, I’ve found the best thing to do is get that twitter window open. Put in the required hashtags, and see what you’ve got left to work with.

Some tips:

  • Avoid names. In such a short pitch, it’s okay to just say “he” or “she.” If the names are short, and you can, then you can.
  • Go for the conflict. No setup. Conflict.

4. The 35-word pitch. I’ve found that pithiest of these are generally the ones that use the formula of “TITLE OF MY AWESOME BOOK is [popular movie A] meets [bestselling book B] — with {a twist.}

Do you see the formula there? You’re telling the agent/editor what your book is like — and bonus points for making it like something that’s already selling well! — but also that yours is different. It will stand out. People will love it MORE than [bestselling book B]!!

See if you can write a 35-word pitch using this formula.

5. The first 250 words. My best advice here is to make sure that it’s not A) overstuffed with useless words, and B) too heavily focused on backstory. Neither will get you very far.

No, go forth and throw your best pitches out there!


Liz Isaacson writes contemporary and inspirational romance when she’s not teaching. She is currently revising her inspirational romance manuscript for a Harlequin Love Inspired contest and blogging about writing, reading, and life. She lives in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and two children, where she serves on her community’s library board and attends the various writing conferences around the state.