The Pitch Is A Bitch (But Don’t Fear The Query)
Dang, that is one of my worst blog titles yet created .
We’ll just have to keep it. I give you this blog, C-section scars and syphilis warts and all. And that’s okay. You just have to deal with that. Sure, you could run. But then you’d trip the perimeter alarms and the pop-up machine guns would cut you in half. And then the boars would eat you. I’ve trained them on the taste of human flesh. You should see the tricks they do!
What was I saying?
Right. “Warts and all.” It’s fine that the blog has its warts, but what should not have warts is your query letter. That is not the time or the place to put your crappiest work out into the marketplace. Thing is, it’s not that hard to make a pitch letter and spit-shine it to a healthy gleam. It just feels hard. For the longest time, even thinking of a query letter was for me a hell’s parade. It came with a lot of baggage, baggage I still don’t understand. On the one hand, I balked — “Puh? Pshh! Feh. I just wrote a hundred thousand goddamn words, and now you want me to write it onto a single piece of paper? You, query letter, can eat a dick and die!” Any time I opened the document to write a pitch, it was like staring into oblivion’s maw. Nothing came to me. All the precious language was sucked out of my head and into the void.
But as I said? Came with baggage. Some baggage included (but was not limited to): fear of success, fear of failure, premature anger at a system that would surely one day reject me, and a resounding uncertainty of what my work was really even about. How could I cut to the heart of it if I didn’t know where in the body the heart lurked? I was ignorant of my own work.
Then one day I pushed past all that and wrote a query letter, and that query letter got me some good response. Does that make me qualified to tell you how to write a query letter? No. But has that stopped me before? See earlier answer: “No!” So this, like all the advice on this site, is purely theoretical. It’s what I did and it worked. You do what you like. Maybe you’ll find wisdom here. Maybe you’ll pee in my eyes.
Let us begin.
Let’s whip out our checklist. No, not our shopping list at Ye Olde Dildo Shoppe. That’s a different post. This list? The shit you need to get your house in order before you go querying all willy-nilly.
First: do you know what your book is about? I don’t mean, “What happens.” I mean, what lies at the heart of it? Ruminate on this. Find confidence in describing the book.
Second: try selling it verbally to people you know. Walk up to them, and tell them why they should read it. You’re selling a product. Entice them with its sexy pants.
Third: know who you’re sending it to. In other words, have you compiled a list of agents and/or publishers to whom you’ll send this query? Well, do that. Make sure you compile a list of agents who actually want your material, by the way. If they don’t list “sci-fi” and you’ve got an epic novel about civil war between Moon Badgers, you might want to not include on the list people who don’t want your goddamn book. Also, do a little homework on each agent. Find out what books they’ve repped. Look for interviews. You might see things that make you think, “This is a great fit,” or, “Oh, damn, this is a bad idea.”
Fourth: put together a spreadsheet or some kind of query tracker database. Or, hell, use a whiteboard. Just know who you’re sending to, and when. That way you know when to (roughly) expect responses.
Sixth: do I really need to mention that you should have a semi-polished novel completed?
Caveat: You Are Not A Unicorn
You’re really just a horse like everybody else. A lot of writers — hey, me included! — start off thinking, “Well, I’ll really catch their attention if I do something different.” Yes, that’s true. It’s the same way that if you decide to stomp around the city square dressed like a giant buttplug you’re going to “catch their attention.” But nobody’s thinking, “Gosh, I really want to hire that beautiful human buttplug.”
So, put your best and most normal foot forward.
If it says, “I’m not open to queries,” do not query. At the very least, throw them an email, “Just wanted to see if you’re still closed to queries.” They’ll probably not respond, but they might. I did this, and one was actually open despite what she said online.
If it says, “I don’t rep screenplays (or fantasy or novels about human buttplugs),” then don’t break the rules and send yours anyway.
Don’t send on cute e-mail stationary.
Don’t talk to them like they know you and you’re buddies.
Don’t think that you can send them the whole damn WiP if they only want the first chapter.
Don’t attach if if they want it in the body of the mail, and vice versa.
Don’t query on an uncompleted novel based off of your “raw brilliance.”
Don’t be an asshole.
Don’t pretend to be special.
Be clean, forthright, and polite.
Put just enough of yourself out there so that your stench does not overwhelm.
Writing The Query
In high school and college, I learned an essential truth: when the teacher says, “I want a paper between seven and ten pages,” I wrote seven pages where everyone else always crammed into ten (or more). They thought that more = better, when really, that’s not true. Actually, it is true only when you add one more component to that equation — less = more, and thus, more = better. Thus, less = better. Reason for this is twofold. First, brevity really is the soul of wit, and lengthy rambling pap is the soul of shit. Second, agents — like teachers — are overwhelmed with reading. That’s all they do. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, and also? Read. Do them a favor. Keep it short and sweet. The shorter, the better.
This is how I wrote my query.
Subject: “Query: Book Name (Add’l Details: XXk word count, genre, one or two notable elements)”
I opened with a brief (sentence or two) of greeting.
Then I moved into “The Hook,” which is a single-serving sentence that sums up that most essential of questions: “What Is This Book About?” When I say one sentence, I mean it. (I’ll tell you to keep it to 50 words, but my opening sentence was, I believe, 60. Which is a little too long, but fuck it, it worked.)
Then I answered the exact same question, but in longer paragraph form. This is “The Pitch.” And by the way, I was very heavy-handed about this, literally labeling them as such in the query. This paragraph describes more about what happens. It gives the scope of the book, shows off the key characters, and gives a taste of the end without giving away the end. This paragraph for me was about 350 words. I don’t know that you need to keep it to a single paragraph, but do keep it to 300-400 words.
Then, a bio paragraph. Maybe 100, 150 words, tops. Only include relevant information. Been published? Worth noting, I guess. Your English degree? Probably not. Unless it’s a non-fiction book about Chaucer.
Finally, a very brief line or two of, “Thanks, I appreciate your time, blah blah blah.”
You, John Q. Writertype, Esq. III
(This is based off of AgentQuery’s own suggestions.)
I’ve read a bunch of queries since doing my own. And here’s where I’ve noticed many fail:
First, booooo-ring. If I can’t make it through your 350-word paragraph without wanting to take a nap, you’re in trouble. Be exciting. Show the promise of the novel’s premise. I’m not saying you need to start the book with a gunfight, but show, don’t tell works in a query letter, too. Heck, you can work with a great opening sentence to that second paragraph, too — just as a book needs to open strong, so does your query.
Second, wuh? Wuzza? Whoosa? Some query letters are downright confusing. They’re written by, as it turns out, someone who has already read the novel. You. And you are very likely going to make assumptions and forget that the agent has not read the novel.
Third, cliches make Baby Jesus fall asleep and forget he has to fight Super Devil on the playground at three o’clock, thus resulting in the damnation of all. If your query has cliches, then so does your novel (so the agent will think, and the agent might be right).
Fourth, it really helps to know the stakes. The agent will want to know why she should care. What’s on the table? What does the protag want? What’s preventing the protag from achieving it?
Fifth, you just don’t have a grip on this whole “writing words” thing. (And that’s bad news because — let’s be frank — it probably means your novel sucks rancid monkey nipple.)
To discover your errors, have others read it.
Not “yes men,” but people who will sell you straight on whether your shit truly stinks.
Also: read it aloud. Always read your work aloud.
Idea: Query First
Write your query before you write the novel.
Weird, I know.
But try it. Why? Because it’ll help you focus on what the novel is about before you write it. And it’ll serve as a template for the query letter you’ll need to write. Yes, things in the book will change, but it’s a good starting point — and, by answering the big questions (what is this about, what are the stakes, what does the protag want and fear?), you’ll have them pinned to your corkboard from word one.
Rules Are Made To Be Broken, Right?
I’ve read successful queries that abide by totally different rules. Why did they work despite breaking the rules? Because they were still great queries. They still managed to get people excited about the project in a very short amount of time (meaning, small amount of page space). So, know that you can think you’re a unique and beautiful snowflake, but only if you’re actually a unique and beautiful snowflake.
Most of us are not.
Hence, keep it clean. Play by the rules. You don’t have to do what I did — hell, maybe my way is a terrible way and you shouldn’t follow in my footsteps. But it worked for me. And that’s something, I guess.