Pitch and Query Tips

April 10, 2018

I'm a veteran of the Twitter pitch contest. That’s what first gave me the kick out the door to start submitting my original manuscript to agents. After I made it onto a team in Mario Pitch Wars, I signed with my agent through the post-contest Twitter pitch. I’ve been there. I’ve done it. I’m much, much wiser now.

 

If you think you’ll never have to write another query letter once you’re a signed author, I have some unfortunate news for you. The cake is a lie. Queries are longer and rebranded as “book pitches,” which are submited to editors. Your agent will help you polish your pitch, but they won’t write it for you from scratch. That’s not what they do. They’re busy people.

 

Let’s move on to tips. I’ll start with the basic info, get into the details of each section of a query, then finish with an example.

 

BASIC QUERYING INFORMATION:

 

Have you read the agent’s submission guidelines? Twice? Do they represent your genre and age group? Are you sure? Okay. Look at their current clients and peruse their Manuscript Wishlist or #MSWL. It’s a way to let agents know you did your research.

 

As long as the agent represents your genre and age group, you can still submit to them. Yes, you can query an agent even if your book theme isn’t on their MSWL, or you have nothing in common with their current clients. However, if they represent mostly romance and you wrote a commercial fiction, I'd think twice. Some quick points:

 

  • Don’t be gimmicky. Agents have seen it all before and don’t have time. And the bigger agents will have assistants filtering their email queries.

  • Follow the agent’s guidelines.

  • Only submit to someone who represents your age group (PB, MG, YA, Adult) or genre.

  • Be concise and short.

  • Double check everything. Have a friend or professional look over your query to check for mistakes or give a critique.

  • Only give the agent the exact number of pages they ask for, in order, numbered. If you have a prologue…it better be strong. Or you can do what I did and call it, “Chapter One.” (On that note, my agent really loved my prologue and insisted it was called “Prologue.”)

  • Keep track of your queries and find new agents through QueryTracker. Some people use EXCEL, but this was a blessing for me to see other users input.

 

HOW TO WRITE A COMPELLING QUERY LETTER:

 

Your query is a reflection of your writing and of you as an author. Be professional. Word yourself well and be friendly, but not overly casual. Treat it like a cover letter to a resume but with personality. You’re essentially applying for a job.

 

Avoid being overly emotional. In that, I mean don’t champion your book as the greatest book ever or the next anything. Do mention comparable (comp) titles if possible, but they’re not required. At the same time, don’t put yourself down or roil on your inexperience. I’m terrible... I’ve never done... I don’t have... Take a breath. It’s okay. Querying is terrifying for everyone. But it is manageable. 

 

Never trash on your genre.

 

Or any genre for that matter. Never trash on popular books. I don’t care how much someone didn’t like TWILIGHT or aren’t a fan of HARRY POTTER or whatever romance series is popular at the time. Don’t do it. Queries are written in a professional setting, which ought to be honored with some level of respect. A query letter is not a time to air grievances against anyone, particularly popular authors, or authors you’ve comp’d. These authors are your potential colleagues. They’re also big sellers. Punching down reveals the querying author's unchecked ego and a possible chip on their shoulder. No agent will jump at the chance to work with someone who is rude or disrespectful.

 

For the actual query:

A query letter needs to be short, between 150-200 words, and read like a back-cover copy. While it needs to fit onto one double-spaced, 12 pt Times New Roman page, 250 words is pushing it. The query should contain an intro, main pitch, and author bio—don’t fret over the author bio. It won’t make or break you.

 

A query shouldn’t give away the ending unless it’s absolutely necessary—this isn’t a synopsis where you lay out the book in its entirety. Save some of the mystery for later. Instead, focus on why your book is the sparkling jewel in a mound of cr—hay, mound of hay that needs to be discovered. (All first drafts are crap. Let’s face it. But you should never, ever query a draft.)

 

Give only the important information. Grand worldbuilding comes later. Agents and publishers constantly read through pitches and queries. Yes, you want to spin a world of magic and imagery. Not now. Save that for the excerpt. Give a taste of what the voice is like and set up the breadcrumbs to trail them along. In my SFF author opinion, it’s difficult to write sci-fi and fantasy queries or pitches. We have to whittle down huge world concepts into >250 words. It’s no fun, but we do it.

 

If you’re speaking from a diverse, marginalized, or OwnVoices point-of-view in your manuscript, reference it in your closing—if you feel comfortable doing so. Only you and the agent will know, and you can mention if you don’t want it to be public knowledge. If the agent doesn’t sign you, there’s a 99.999% chance they’ll forget all the personal information you mentioned after they close the email. I’m not telling you to out yourself. I’m not telling you to reveal any information that makes you uncomfortable. A simple “told from an OwnVoices perspective” will do (example later).

 

A good query all boils down to four things: character, motivation, stakes, growth.

  • Character: Who are the main characters in the manuscript?

  • Motivation: What do they want?

  • Stakes: What do they have to lose? Literally, what’s at stake for the protagonist?

  • Growth: How do they change over the manuscript?

 

STAKES:

I feel it’s important to discuss stakes here. Agents and editors often talk about stakes. No stakes. The stakes weren’t high enough. Stakes are like that tense music in the background of a movie trailer that makes you hold your breath as your skin tightens and the, “wait for it” moment stretches to a break. Alien invasion. City-wide explosion. Virus outbreak. Stakes are everything the main character has to gain or lose on their journey. It’s what makes you say, “I need to read this.”

 

When a query or book synopsis, I ask myself the same thing. “Why should I care?” Every sentence, every plot point, every character: Why. Should. I. Care.

 

Why should I care?

 

Why should I care to spend my time reading these words? Make me care. I need to have a vested interest in that main character and their well-being by the end of the introduction. Saying they’re not like other people won’t cut it. Show me how they’re special. Give me a reason to care about their wellbeing. 

 

Hook me.

 

A good hook is simple to construct. When [blank happens], then [blank must happen], or else [blank].

 

When the clock strikes midnight, Cinderella must leave the ball, or else her carriage will turn into a pumpkin.

 

PITCHES:

For every book, every author needs an elevator pitch. This will be one or two sentences that describes the book. Great examples of an elevator pitch are the NYT bestseller descriptions or, if you’re going a little longer, the Publisher’s Weekly book announcements. The shorter, the better.

 

Back in my day *shakes fist at cloud* we only had 140 characters. Now, with hashtags, I'd say it's up to 200-220. A Twitter pitch is made up of the same basic thing as a query, only shorter. Tell who your main character(s) is. State what's at stake. Give the inciting incident aka "What went wrong when." Include the genre, age group, and any other special tags. 

 

Here are examples of books from the MG, YA, and Adult categories taken from The New York Times Best Sellers List:

 

​A Wyoming game warden teams up with his daughter to find a missing British businesswoman.

 

THE DISAPPEARED

by C.J. Box

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


​​Zélie fights to restore magic to the land of Orïsha.

 

CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE

by Tomi Adeyemi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

​​A girl who stretches the truth must save her classmates and mother from an ancient demon who escapes from a cursed lamp.

 

ARU SHAH AND THE END OF TIME
by Roshani Chokshi 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You should be able to tell me within 1-2 sentences what your book is about. If you can't, figure it out fast. You'll end up answering this question a lot. What was your manuscript about, Dill? A modern adult fantasy about an all-queer, international circus troupe, who are granted mystical abilities based on their mortal talents only to find all power comes at a price—like Cirque du Soleil with magic and German folklore. (Vague Dill must be vague on the plot, sorry.)

 

And that other one? Young Adult high fantasy; two ace mages from different disciplines must thwart a cruel thief lord before he overthrows the monarchy and captures one mage's brother—the crown prince's fiancé.

 

Many people include comp titles in their pitches to catch the eye and give agents a good comparison. That's fine, as long as it lives up to the comparison. I'd personally want to use the characters for something else when I'm pitching. This is me. To each their own.

 

 

QUERY EXAMPLE:

 

I’m going to beg for patience. The query/book pitch I originally wanted to include can’t be made public. So, I dug this one up. At 275-words, it’s not perfect. It’s not horrific, either. I'm seriously much better at critiquing than I am writing pitches. I’ll include the full book pitch, then go through the sections in detail:

 

On the sixteenth day of the sixteenth month at the sixteenth hour, he comes. The Peacock King whisks away four teens of exceptional creative ability to be members of his faery court—whether they wish it or not. Best friends and secret lovers, Charlotte and Rosalie dreamt of attending a musical conservatory and avoiding arranged marriages. Siblings Uli and Bastian—mummers who work in taverns and play houses for the lower classes—believe the King’s call is not only a chance at a fantastical life, but a means of feeding their four younger siblings.

 

But the King is not merely a King. She is also the Queen of the Faery Isles, a viscous beauty prone to jealousy. As they fluctuate between King and Queen, Charlotte and Bastian are both taken by them. When asexual and aromantic Uli confesses xie has no interest in the Queen or King, xie vanishes at the same time a puma with gray eyes appears in the royal menagerie.

 

Bastian, Charlotte, Rosalie, and the transformed Uli must travel deep into the palace’s underground maze to destroy the source of the King’s faery power, save Uli, and escape before the portal linking the faery and mortal realms closes for another year.

 

Told from alternating POVs between Charlotte and Bastian, THE PEACOCK KING is a tale of friendship and queer bonding, and explores the idea of a genderfluid Bluebeard combined with Labyrinth (if Sarah had stayed). All main characters are queer with one being nonbinary and the monarch genderfluid. It was written by an OwnVoices author.

 

 

ANALYSIS:

On the sixteenth day of the sixteenth month at the sixteenth hour, he comes. The Peacock King whisks away four teens of exceptional creative ability to be members of his faery court—whether they wish it or not.

Worldbuilding. We have a hook and a setup. There’s voice, a bit of spookiness and tension.

 

Best friends and secret lovers, Charlotte and Rosalie dreamt of attending a musical conservatory and avoiding arranged marriages.

Stakes. Character building. What do Charlotte and Rosalie do as musicians? There’s no room for that here. It made sense even when I left it out, so I’m fine.

 

Siblings Uli and Bastian—mummers who work in taverns and play houses for the lower classes—believe the King’s call is not only a chance at a fantastical life, but a means of feeding their four younger siblings.

More stakes. More character introductions of different genders and social classes.

 

But the King is not merely a King. She is also the Queen of the Faery Isles, a viscous beauty prone to jealousy.

Here’s the twist. This is the moment where you learn what makes this book special. Yes, the proposed “love interest” is genderfluid, but they’re also not 100% the good person, which sets them up as the antagonist.

 

As they fluctuate between King and Queen, Charlotte and Bastian are both taken by them.

Stakes. Now people are being pitted against each other, siblings and lovers are left out of the mix as the original groups divide.

 

When asexual and aromantic Uli confesses xie has no interest in the Queen or King, xie vanishes at the same time a puma with gray eyes appears in the royal menagerie.

Conflict. Growth. Motivation. This is the climax. We’re getting to the setup for the hook of a query: When [blank] happens, then [blank] must happen, or else [blank].

 

Bastian, Charlotte, Rosalie, and the transformed Uli must travel deep into the palace’s underground maze to destroy the source of the King’s faery power, save Uli, and escape before the portal linking the faery and mortal realms closes for another year.

Here’s the motivation, stakes, and growth. There’s a deadline and new setting (the maze), which gives us tension and depth.

 

Told from alternating point-of-views between Charlotte and Bastian, THE PEACOCK KING is a completed 80,000-word Young Adult fantasy. A tale of friendship and queer bonding, it explores the idea of a genderfluid Bluebeard combined with Labyrinth (if Sarah had stayed). All main characters are queer with one being nonbinary and the monarch genderfluid. It was written by an OwnVoices author.

Be certain to do the following in the closing paragraph: give the title, genre, age group, word count. I don’t have to say how it’s OwnVoices. That will come later, if at all. Book pitches have a separate page for the author bio. Mine includes that I’m queer and genderqueer. So, people will know. I’m open about it. You don’t have to be.

 

Sorry this was long. If you learned anything or have enjoyed my blogs, I do enjoy a ko-fi. I do freelance as a sensitivity and beta reader, consultant, and provide critiques for queries as well as pitches. See my Services Offered page for more information.

 

Dill Werner is an OwnVoices author of queer fiction for adults and young adults and sensitivity reader. An advocate for trans* and nonbinary people, they have written about demisexuality for YAPride, have been interviewed on demisexuality for The Daily Dot, and were featured on Culturess’s 20 Nonbinary Creators You Need to Keep An Eye Out For. They live in South Carolina with their spouse and three-toed bunny. You can follow them on Twitter and Instagram. Come for the cute bunny pictures, stay for the discussion on gender and asexuality.

 

 

 

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