Last year I entered my novel The Shore of Monsters in ABNA 2012. I literally did it at the last minute. Starting on my pitch about 3 hours before submissions closed, I entered everything with about an hour to spare. Given that I didn't spend much time on my pitch, I wasn't very hopeful. However, my novel made it past the pitch stage to the next round. Beginner's luck!
This year, I actually read a number of example pitches from previous winners, found at the following link: ABNA Winning Pitches
I also read a couple of dozen others that advanced deep into the competition. Only then did I realize what I could have done earlier to improve the pitch, and what to do for this year's entry. In particular, I noticed three common threads regarding winning entries.
1. The first fifty words should grab the reviewer by the throat and shake vigorously. In fact, those first couple of lines should be so intriguing that the rest of the pitch is not necessary. Given that reviewers have hundreds of pitches to dig through, instead of reading each pitch and carefully considering it, they probably adopt the mind set of looking for reasons to discard a pitch. If the first few sentences don't knock the reviewer's socks off, then it's too easy for that person to discard it without even finishing. (By the way, anyone who has ever gone through a giant stack of resumes understands what I'm saying; you find yourself looking for resumes to exclude, not include. Human nature!)
2. The writing in the pitch must reflect the writer's work. I mean that on two levels. First, the pitch must scream "this writer can sling ink with the best of 'em!" If the writing in a pitch is mediocre, then say goodbye your dreams of the big prize. Second, the tone of the pitch should reflect the tone of the work. Humor, darkness, melancholy, quirkiness - whatever drives your novel should be present in the pitch, and in abundance.
3. You should summarize the work in general terms at the end of the pitch. In particular, you must find a way to communicate how you believe this work will attract and affect readers, and what they will take away from it. Most winning pitches include this part, and they are extremely well-worded at that.
Given those unofficial guidelines, I wrote the pitch below for my entry Cage of Skin and Bone. Keeping it to 300 words was challenging, but it did help me both tighten the verbiage and consider what plot elements were the most important.
For eighteen year old Crissa, life as a caged display in a
traveling freak show has no upside. Unless she counts free room and
board. People stare with disgusted curiosity, and say terrible things
about her. How ugly she is. How strangely she behaves. And worst of all,
how much she resembles the brutish Humans who died long ago. But they
come by thousands to hear her do what no other can do. Sing!
a ‘what-if’ world where prehistoric Humans fell extinct and
Neanderthals inherited the earth, Crissa looks like no other. Imprisoned
by the brutal Tal-Bern, who six years earlier murdered her mother and
hauled her away, Crissa serves the glory of the circus. Every night she
faces hostile crowds who marvel at her disturbing strangeness. And every
night she stuns them with passionate singing, before returning to a
dank cage. If not bad enough, her circumstances grow bleaker. She is
marked for death, sold by Tal-Bern to the highest bidder for sacrifice
during the bloodthirsty Rite of Long Moon – which is fast approaching.
Though all seems lost, the shuttered window to her future opens when one
evening she spies a young man in shadows beyond the crowd – and his
face is like hers!
Freed by the stranger, she flees with him
toward the vague promise of a better place. Backed by the ruthless man
who wishes to sacrifice Crissa for a dark purpose, Tal-Bern pursues the
two. Crissa’s headlong flight carries her toward the mysteries of a
murky past, her Human face, and the wonderment of love and belonging. If
only Tal-Bern doesn’t destroy her first.
narrative drives Cage of Skin and Bone in a story that explores the
burden of exclusion, the power of kindness, and what it means to be
Update: This pitch made it past the pitch round at ABNA 2013. O joy!