Agent Kristin Nelson has been running a series of pitch workshops on her blog, although most of them are really examples/dissections of pitches she thinks work. The original post clarifies what she believes the logic behind a working pitch is; specifically, she thinks you should focus on the story's inciting incident--the thing that starts all the havoc--and not give away the book's ending or too much of its plot. She believes the pitch should read very much like the backflap copy on a published novel.
Keeping in mind that different agents think different things are "right" in terms of what makes a pitch work, and that some may prefer a more synopsis-like query, this approach is making more and more sense to me. The inciting incident of your novel is the one thing that makes a reader willing to plough through 300 pages to find out what happens. In light of that fact, of course the inciting incident is also the perfect thing to hook an agent's interest with.
While I was studying Kristin's examples, I noticed something that ties in with logline advice given in the screenwriting book Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder, which Josephine Damien pointed out recently on her blog:
"You must be able to see a whole movie in [the logline]."
A lot of the example pitches include a sentence (usually at the end) that performs this function. That sentence doesn't tell you how the story ends; it just gives you the impression that there is a big, interesting story to be told. That sentence is the pitch's hook, and often, the rest of the pitch is there only to give that one sentence its punch.
For example, here's the sentence that ends the pitch paragraph for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:
"But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives announcing that Harry has been chosen to attend Hogwarts, an elite school for the training of wizards and witches..."
That sentence not only tells you what the book's inciting incident is, everything in the pitch up to that point has been backstory or world-building to set the sentence up so it has maximum impact. The rest of the text was there so that when you read that line, you could see a world of possibilities bloom out of it.
If you haven't noticed, Jessica Faust at BookEnds, LLC has been critiquing pitch paragraphs, and (O happy day! O mindbogglingly-masochistic literary agent!) she has quietly reopened submissions on it. If you want to add your pitch to the queue (of 150+), you can do so here. She probably isn't going to get to it until 2008, but this is still a great opportunity.
Regarding the title of this post: may I suggest a workshop? Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to try to rewrite your pitch paragraph according to this prescription: focus on the story's inciting incident and include at least one line that prompts the reader to envision what the rest of the story is likely to be.
Then, if you submit your pitch as a comment to this post, I'll critique it. (This is because I believe critiquing others' work is a great way to learn things myself, not because I think I'm a fabulous expert or anything. Still, I'll be your beta reader for free, and that's not a bad deal, given the price.)
Try to keep it under 250 words, and if you submit the pitch to the BookEnds blog afterward, then when Jessica gets to it, you'll get to see whether Goblin is a moron or not. :-D
Other people are welcome to comment on any of the pitches, provided they give constructive criticism. While ridicule can be extremely entertaining (as my beloved Evil Editor proves), it is not an effective way to teach. Forcing yourself to dissect the reasons why you didn't like something is an excellent exercise because it sharpens your own understanding. Sneering does not, and it hurts someone's feelings, even if other people do find your comments amusing.
Goblin's Crucible humbly awaits your bravery and submissions.