I’ve been in the writing industry for six years now and have spent more than half of them in the query trenches. Yes, I know, that’s exactly as exhausting as it sounds. I’ve received more rejections than I have books on my shelf, which is saying quite a lot! But to be perfectly honest with you all, I wouldn’t trade those five painful years of trying to break into the traditional publishing industry for anything, even though I’m glad they’re behind me.
Because it taught me a very valuable skill.
No matter how a book makes its way into readers hands—indie, hybrid, traditional, whatever—it’ll never get there in the first place if the author doesn’t know how to sell their work. And a huge part of selling stories is to craft a balanced, hooky pitch that signals to the reader what kind of story this is, not to mention compels them to want to read it. A pitch is the meat of a query letter, the blurb on the back of a book, or the thing you say in an elevator when explaining your story to someone.
In short, a pitch is what sells the novel.
So hopefully everyone agrees with me here when I say that pitching is one of the most important skills a writer and storyteller can develop. After all, why bother creating books in the first place if you can’t get anyone to pick them up?
However, getting that hook right is a tremendously difficult thing to do. After 15 novels, I know exactly how excruciating it can be to boil your whole book down into 150-200 words. It can feel like the trickiest of balancing acts, trying to cram in all the relevant and interesting details without cluttering the blurb and making a reader’s eyes glaze over. But the good news is that there are some really common pitfalls that most writers fall into, issues I’ve seen over and over in my time at the NYC Algonkian Pitch Conference. After internalizing these 9 key tips, I found that my ability to condense my story into a short, catchy paragraph got exponentially better.
Hopefully these will help you too!
So without further introduction, here are a few things you can do to make your pitch (or query letter) as strong as possible:
- Always start with character. This is BY FAR the most common thing I see people getting wrong. So often, I read pitches or query letters that begin “In the land of something where the something something something” and no offense, but I’ve already spaced out. I also see a lot of “Bruno Highfly has the power to shoot lasers from his toes, but will that be enough to stop the evil empress of Cloud Nine”. Obviously I’m exaggerating (or am I…), but the point is that it’s tempting to dig into the exciting part of your story right away. After all, we’re all told to start en media res, or in the middle of the action. However, the way it’s been explained to me is that no one cares about Spiderman who’s fighting the big bad super villain until you care about Peter Parker who’s in love with the girl next door. In order to grab the reader, you have to give them a sympathetic “in” to your story. Offer a character whose plight the reader can sympathize with, a normal that is about to be disrupted. Rather than dive in with “Amelia has six months to win the fashion show” perhaps start with “Despite six years of slaving away at her sewing machine, Amelia never thought she’d be good enough to get into the fashion show. But everything changes when the acceptance letter arrives.” That’s a simplistic example, but basically you want to start with something immediately sympathetic, personal, and preferably understandable to someone who has no grounding in your story-world (this is true for non-SFF too, in the sense that you have to slowly build the reader into the perspective and viewpoint of whatever situation the story takes place in, whether its in another culture, another nation, or even just another phase of life).
- Plot is not the same as circumstances. Often when I ask a writer what their story is about (which, by the way, you should be able to say in ONE SENTENCE), they begin to describe the environment around their character or the protagonist’s inner struggle or what the antagonist is doing. In the case of SFF books, I’ll get a long explanation of the magic system or the setting or the super-awesome stuff going on. Someone’s working against the main character, something bad is happening, their love interest is going away, their father just died. Ok, all interesting, but none of that is what is of utmost important in hooking a reader to keep going past that first page: plot. Plot is the progression of events driven by the protagonist’s goal where the protagonist either succeeds or fails. Think of it as a series of dominoes, set off by an inciting incident and tumbling toward an inevitable climax where the protagonist changes in some vital and important way. So as for the query, after you start with the “normal” world of your protagonist (see above), the next thing I want to see is the Inciting Incident, or the event that kickstarts the plot. Maybe his father does die or her lover get kidnapped or the elves invaded. But the incident should immediately lead to (or follow, as some cases may be) the protagonists clear and describable goal.
- Keep it short and targeted. Industry standard for query letters is 150-250 words. However, I’ve heard a lot of agents say that on average, they read only 50. I know that’s rough to hear, but you gotta give them credit. They’re not getting paid to read query letters, and they get floods of them by the week WEEK. What that means for you is that you need to hook them RIGHT AWAY. Give them the character, setting, goal, and plot as quickly and concisely as you can. Again, I highly recommend reading the backs of popular books for this, as they’re professional examples of how the publishing industry gets people to buy their books. You’re trying to stand out to a person whose eyes are tired after reading 200+ of these things. Don’t bog it down with any unnecessary words or plotlines or characters. Short, sweet, and strictly need-to-know.
- ONE Point of View. On that note, even if your book is multi-POV (which is fairly common in the SFF and literary markets), keep it to one in the query letter. Basically, see your query letter as the reader looking through the eyes of your protagonist, or at least the character who is at the ‘heart’ of the book. Even in the really big, epic, multi-POV stuff, it’s very hard to be engaging when talking about sweeping lands and/or vague politics when you’re dealing with 250 words. If it’s not grounded in a person, it’s boring, and if it’s grounded in too many people, it’s confusing. Streamline and simplify (I know, I’m hammering. But I’ve seen so many people shoot themselves in the foot by being way too complicated at the query stage).
- Consider your Hook. This is the last point I’ll make for the “pitch” aspect of the query, and that’s to really, deeply, intensely consider your hook. What this means is that agents are looking for what makes your book different. They want something they haven’t seen before. That can be the voice of the story, the main character, the plot, the magic system, the structure, the twist or inversion of a common trope, etc. There are dozens of things that can make a book stand out as something unique and fresh. But that’s the thing, it has to be unique and fresh to break into the crowded world of publishing. That’s just the brutal truth (for both traditional publishing AND self-publishing, btw). So what part of your book is something that the agent reading your query letter (or jaded reader) has NEVER seen before, even after years in the industry? If it’s your voice, then that voice should be apparent in the query/pitch (for example, if you’re writing a laugh-out-loud romantic comedy, make sure that pitch is funny). If it’s your plot, make sure the plot shines through. If there’s a twist halfway through the book that subverts all the tropes, either show it, hint it, or have another hook that’s equally compelling. Obviously, it’s impossible to be totally original all the time, but when writing a query or pitch, experienced agents (and readers!) feel like they’ve seen it all. Go forth and prove them wrong.
- Don’t Forget your Comparable Titles. Moving on to the more nuts-and-bolts of querying/pitching, this is something newbies almost always forget. And the thing is, they’re missing out! Comparable titles (or comps) are a GREAT way to show where your book fits in the market and prove to agents that you know what you’re talking about. For example, if you can say your book is Eat, Pray, Love meets Guardians of the Galaxy, that’s enough to make me pause and wonder what you could possibly mean (a hook, perhaps?). If you say your work is comparable to Spinning Silver and Throne of Glass, I immediately know it’s a YA fairy tale retelling and can visualize where it fits on the bookshelf at Barns & Noble. Maybe you claim your novel is an 18th century Gone Girl, in which case I know it’s a woman-power thriller in the Victorian-ish era. Whatever your novel, comps are not only a fantastic method to immediately prove you know your market, it’s also a great way to give the agent/editor an immediate tip-off as to what KIND of book this is, which makes the query even easier to digest. However, a word of caution: I would be wary of using the really Big Blockbuster Books as comps. Claiming your book is Harry Potter meets Game of Thrones just makes you sound unrealistic and potentially difficult to work with. I usually recommend using one, maybe two big titles and at least one that’s more obscure or less well-known. Either that or combining two big titles in an unusual way (like: Water for Elephants meets Handmaids Tale/The Matrix meets Little Women – sorry, you can tell I’m a nerd here…).
- Know your Genre. This is a hard one to do if you’re just getting started, but make sure you have a rock-solid understanding of the genre you’re in, and specifically what that genre is looking for. This is for your benefit as much as the agents, because trying to pitch something that won’t sell to the market you’re trying to sell in is just wasting everyone’s time. Mostly people understand this (after all, writers tend to read in the genre they write), but the thing I see people getting wrong all the time is word count. Word count, in my opinion, is the single biggest thing that can red-flag a query. Are you trying to sell a Young Adult novel of 250K words? Or a thriller that’s 50K? Or a Middle Grade that’s 90K? Trust me, I’ve seen it all and no matter how brilliant or innovative your book is, if it’s that far off the mark, the agent won’t bother (if you’re wondering, the rules of thumb I’ve read are: MG 20-50K, YA 70-90K, SFF 90-120K, Thriller/Romance/Mystery 80-90K, etc). Similarly, if you’re writing a Romance novel with no romance, or a mystery with no mystery, or a science fiction with no scientific element, you’ll be dead in the water. There’s a proper genre for pretty much everything anyone’s ever written (I mean, if House of Leaves can be classified…), so just make sure you’re putting yourself on the proper “shelf” and you’re respecting the readers who browse that shelf.
- Don’t tell them how they’ll feel. This is another common thing I see among newbies, and it’s the “this book is an emotive exploration of the struggles of youth and will evoke in the reader a sense of wonder at the fleeting nature of existence”. The thing is, your query should explain better than you ever could what your book is meant to be, and trying to explain how the reader is supposed to feel is just telling (show don’t tell, amiright?). Maybe, if you’re writing something super literary and emotional, you can pepper in things like “My novel chronicles one girl’s journey to becoming a woman” or something, but the less of that, the better. Agents and readers don’t care — at least not at this stage — about the deeper layers of your story or the reason you wrote it. Leave all that for the post-pitch/query dialogue (or, of course, the book). For now, it’s about the story and how you’re going to sell it. The rest is just clutter.
- Bio and last words. The last thing I’ll mention is the bio. A lot of writers misunderstand this part in thinking that they somehow have to prove themselves to the editor/agent/reader. Many people get understandably nervous if they haven’t been published before or don’t have any relevant experience. For fiction, it’s totally fine to have no prior experience (This is ONLY true of fiction, however. If you’re writing nonfiction, then a platform is much more important). It’s the story that matters more than anything, so that’s where you should focus your energy as far as the query letter goes. However, there are a few exceptions. If you DO have a significant platform that could help with book sales (a huge Twitter following, a self-published bestseller, a YouTube channel with significant subscribers, a newsletter that reaches tons of people) then do mention that. Likewise, if you have experience that is directly related to the novel (like you’re a psychologist writing a psychological thriller, or your book features a fishing trip and you’re a lifelong fishing enthusiast), then for sure add that in! But mostly the bio section should be 1-2 sentences, friendly but concise. If there’s something you think the agent might enjoy (say she’s a huge fan of dogs and you breed corgis) then perhaps that can be a way of being accessible. But don’t stress about the bio. After all, it’s your book you’re trying to sell. Not you.
Woah, so that was a pile of words. Looks like I met my writing quota for the day! But I do sincerely hope this was helpful to some of you out there. This all, of course, comes with the necessary caveat that Your Mileage May Vary. As Chuck Wendig says, we all burn the map behind us. There’s no bulletproof way to get an agent or book deal or find success in writing. But there are certainly ways to maximize your odds, and understanding how to successfully pitch your story goes a long way toward seeing it sold.
To all you hopefuls in the query trenches, I see you. I was there and it was excruciating, but it’s the crucible of traditional publishing (or, conversely, the marketing crucible of self-publishing). Wherever you are in the journey, I wish you the best of luck!
Have a great weekend everyone and happy writing 🙂