This week I'm participating in Writeoncon's middle grade critique forum as we all gear up for the Luck 'O the Irish Pitchfest next month. So of course I'm thinking about pitches. The thing is that after several years of writing queries and many more years writing cover letters and even a class or two taught on querying specifically and how to get published generally--I still don't like writing a pitch. In fact, I've realized that pitching feels rather a lot like discovering that the adorable fuzzy face which looks in your window and keeps you company is actually a cat--and you're dinner.
I'm not sure that feeling will ever go away entirely, but over time pitching has gotten easier and I have gotten better at it.
My patented pitch-perfecting method requires that you first write the hook or cool thing your book is about. This can happen anytime before typing words on the first page up through having written the first three chapters. But no longer. I really feel that writing the hook helps focus the book, and writing a rough draft of the query at this point can make sure you have a hook (pretty important for when you go agent fishing!) and enough conflict to see the book through. And it forces you to figure out who the most central characters are. It's also easier to get this first attempt at a query pitch out of the way before the whole unyieldy book is written and your original idea has become so puffed up you can't find it anymore.
Once that first query draft is written, I set it aside and let the book develop. It's my belief that outlines, pitches, and synopses are meant to provide the structure--the bean poles, if you will--upon which the novel grows. They are not intended to stifle the growth of the story, and shouldn't be allowed to prune it down. But they can keep it from sprawling all over the dirt.
Once the book is written the pitch is pulled back out to be fine-tuned. At this point I find it helpful to make several lists. The first list has words your character would identify with, like serendipity and moss and golden. Or maybe sassy and grit and curious. These words help you pick out the vocabulary that will make the tone of your query a match with the voice of your book. I also like to pull books of my bookshelf (or the library's or bookstore's) that are similar to mine and write down all the words that pop from the back cover blurb. Then I make a list of my own pop words, that could be used to make my book's back cover blurb. A third list would be the words and/or concepts you'd use to describe your book to a friend or stranger when you wanted to assure them that the book wasn't boring. Words and concepts like steampunk, twins, ancient Egypt, fight, blizzard, and power have a certain inherent interest. Ninjas, too. ;)
Once you've compiled your lists you go back to your pitch and make sure you've used as many of these words as you can. Don't sacrifice clarity and do make the writing smooth, but avoid being boring. Finally, make sure that your pitch introduces your character, tells us what they want and why we should care, and who/what will try to stop them. Do all that and you should have at least the beginnings of a pitch--enough to enter in a contest or run by your critique group. Because the last thing you'll want on your pitch is feedback, and for that you'll need an interesting pitch!