The Dreaded Vagueness

Whenever I did pitch workshops of any kind, I kept seeing the same crucial piece of feedback appear over and over again, both on my own pitches and others’: don’t be vague. If you read a bunch of query or pitch feedback by people who know what they’re talking about, one thing rapidly becomes apparent: vagueness is the enemy.

This drove me nuts, especially for Twitter pitches or other short forms. How specific did they think I could be, exactly, in 140 characters? Not to mention that it seemed to directly conflict with other sage advice — not to try to fit everything in to your query. I struggled with this paradox for a long time, trying to give specific details while keeping my pitch tight.

Then I had an epiphany. The rule wasn’t be specific. It was avoid vagueness.

The problem with vagueness is that it makes your pitch sound like every other pitch out there. Consider this:

Protagonista’s world is turned upside down by a startling discovery about her secret past. She must come to terms with her own powers before a sinister enemy destroys everything she loves.

Okay. That could be a great book, or it could be a terrible book. We don’t know. More to the point, it could be about 500 different books.

If you were giving feedback on this pitch, you might ask things like “How is her world turned upside down? What discovery? What secret past? What powers? Who’s the enemy? Who or what does she love and how are they at risk?” And the poor writer might wonder how they were possibly supposed to answer all those questions in two sentences.

But the real answer is not to try. You don’t need to answer all that stuff. In fact, you shouldn’t, because some of it should be a surprise. The problem isn’t that you need to spell all that stuff out — it’s that you made all these vague references in the first place, inviting questions you don’t have room to answer.

Instead, hone in on three things: character, conflict, stakes. You don’t need to be specific about your villain, your world design, your secret startling revelations… but you do need to be specific about what your hero has to lose and the choices they must make.

That vague pitch could be any of the following:

When mean girl Protagonista learns she’s doomed to die on her 16th birthday, she has 72 hours to make amends for all the wrongs she’s done or the curse will pass to her little sister.

Protagonista’s longtime crush has finally asked her to the prom. But when she learns he’s a super zombie in disguise, accepting his love could doom her entire school to become a feeding ground for the undead.

Protagonista’s zesty spice blends can mystically cure diabetes and baldness. But unless she can whip up a recipe for forgiveness, her vengeful ex will publicly reveal her past as a stripper to drive away her fiancee.

These are not knock-your-socks-off pitches, but you can at least imagine what the book might be like… something you can’t do with a super vague pitch like the first one. Spelling out the conflict and stakes precisely gives the reader something to latch onto. Vague euphemisms for general story themes give them nothing.

So when you find vagueness in your pitch, kill it! But that doesn’t mean you have to explain everything. It simply means that if you spot vague, cliche phrases in your pitch, you should try again.

Published by Melissa Caruso

Fantasy author of the Swords & Fire trilogy: THE TETHERED MAGE (Orbit, 2017), THE DEFIANT HEIR (Orbit, 2018), and THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (Orbit, 2019), as well as the Rooks and Ruin trilogy, beginning with THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (Orbit, 2020). Melissa's debut, THE TETHERED MAGE, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2017. Melissa loves tea, adventure, and the great outdoors, and has been known to swordfight in ballgowns. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two superlative daughters, and assorted pets. Represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds.

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