This contest, called Pitch Madness, is kindly hosted by author Brenda Drake and her team, which includes Shelley Watters and Erica M. Chapman. Unlike the contests that I've entered in the past, this one doesn't ask for a query. Instead, it is much more streamlined, asking only for a 35-word (!!!!) pitch followed by the first 150 words of the manuscript.
It might seem like contests like these are a nuisance, something to distract you from tightening that manuscript or getting out that query, but in truth it's the exact opposite. Contests force you to take another look at your query or hook, with fresh eyes, and to make further edits that, in most cases, makes it better. In the case of the Pitch Madness contest, the focus on a succinct and grabbing pitch is the key.
Pitches are the heart of what it takes to hook readers and win agents, and they're one of the hardest things to do. Forget 1-page synopses or 1-paragraph queries, how the heck is a writer supposed to boil down their 96,000-word epic into a streamlined 1-liner? This story isn't meant to be told in an elevator, you know, it's meant to be read! BUT... if no one picks up the book, and no agent looks beyond the first line, it will never be read, at least not in the traditional way. So pitches are a necessary evil, and getting yours down can only help make your entire manuscript better.
The 1-line pitch or hook for ONE FIFTY ONE has gone through several stages and iterations since it first hit the querying and contest circuit back in May. Here are some of the hooks from queries past:
Seventeen-year-old Aeneas doesn't belong to a Colony. As the bloody scars on his back remind him, he was one more than needed, one more than necessary.
In the world of ONE FIFTY ONE, people live their entire lives in Colonies of one-hundred and fifty people—no more, no less.
ONE FIFTY ONE combines the totalitarian themes of The Hunger Games with the spirit of adventure from Star Wars.
Each of these are good and interesting hooks for the beginning of a query in my humble opinion, but when it came time to pick a pitch for this contest, I just didn't feel comfortable with any of them. Why? Well, neither of them really works well on their own. They do a great job of getting your interest in different ways, and of giving you some information that may be interesting, but none tell you a complete thought about what the story is about while still whetting your appetite for more. And so that got me thinking: how would I pitch ONE FIFTY ONE, sans-query? What would I say to someone in an elevator who only had 10 seconds to grasp what happens in the book? Here's where I ended up:
An outcast boy from the Underground falls in love with an orphaned girl from the Colonies and joins her rebellion against a power-hungry Chieftain with ties to his mysterious past.
This pitch is more synopsis-ey than the others, but I feel that it gives you enough information about what happens in the story and combines that with tiny words and details—from "outcast" and "Underground" to "Colonies", and "rebellion"—that make you want to know more. It's tight, it's true, and it differentiates. I kinda like it!
This Pitch Contest has even helped me out when it comes to getting to a tighter query. Using the pitch above as my 1-line opener to the query, I then streamlined the content of the query synopsis to resemble it in tone and structure, stripping out all details and sentences that are ultimately unnecessary. Here's how my query is now shaping up:
Stay in the 150, you live. Fall out, and take your chances down below.
In ONE FIFTY ONE (a YA sci-fi/fantasy complete at 96,000 words), an outcast boy from the Underground falls in love with an orphaned girl from the Colonies and joins her rebellion against a power-hungry Chieftain with ties to his past.
17-year-old Aeneas doesn’t belong to a Colony. As the bloody scars on his back remind him, he was one more than needed. One more than necessary. He survives as a thief in the depths of the Ilium Underground, until his world begins to slowly fall apart: a mobster tortures him for secrets, the band of pirates that raised him is slaughtered in cold blood, and the Secret Police seem to be following his every move. Then he meets Casseopea, and his world gets turned around once more. All is not well in her Colony: the new Head Mistress is terrorizing its members, a secret rebellion is brewing, and the Chieftain has cast her out in order to help him find an mystical Key. Only by joining forces with this girl from the Colonies will Aeneas learn the truth about his past, unlock the power of the Key, and change the fate of Ilium forever.
So! These contests, and this one in particular, turn out to be much more helpful than they seem. Now if I could only make some headway in one of them... that would be the most helpful thing of them all. Wish me luck!