When my first novel was complete, I sent it to an academic press. (You could do that back then.) The editor liked the book, but decided it would be better placed in a popular press. She gave me a “for example” that I took as a literal suggestion. I called the exampled publisher, and asked for a random editor.
(Warning: Do not try this at home without adult supervision.)
The editor answered the phone. (They could do that back then.) She demanded, somewhat breathlessly, who had given me her name. I mumbled the name of the editor at the academic press, which seemed to calm her. Then she said, “What's it about?” That was my chance. And this is how I blew it.
“Oh,” quoth I, “it's about life on the US/Mexico border.”
She hung up.
If you are at all savvy about the realities of publishing, you are laughing right now. If not, I will spell out, step by step, why that was the stupidest thing I have ever done. In my life.
An editor of a major publishing house had asked me, asked me, mind you, what my book was about, and I came up with the above godawful lame description. After all, my book was complex. I couldn't just sum it up at the drop of a hat. It was about many things: peace, justice, equality, life. Writers think like that. But editors don't. (And neither do agents.)
Before I made that fatal call, I should have prepared a one-sentence pitch that would have snared that editorial fish with irresistible bait. This is what I could have said:
“It's about a ghostly bridal gown that walks the streets of a forgotten village, forever seeking her lover.”
“It is about a boy who falls in love with a mermaid in the driest desert on earth, and has to bring two alienated communities together to win her.”
“It's about two invisible towns that nobody can ever leave, one of which has no past, and the other of which has no future.”
How do those compare with: “It's about life on the US/Mexico border”? Tell me, truthfully.
The reason you need to perfect your pitch before you talk to people or god forbid, before you write to them, is that the pitch forms the basis of your query letter, your proposal, and any other form of communication you will have about your book - forever.
So, before you tell anybody that you have written a book – agent, editor, your mother – come up with a one-sentence summary of your book that will hook them. This, not surprisingly, is called a hook. The hook does not have to accurately reflect the entire concept of your book, nor does it have to convey deep inner meanings. The only purpose of a hook is sum up the story in a way that will pique the interest of everybody within earshot.