The Pitch Is A Bitch (But Don’t Fear The Query)

Strike

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.

The Checklist

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.

Fifth: look at AgentQuery and QueryShark.

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.”

Sincerely,

You, John Q. Writertype, Esq. III

(This is based off of AgentQuery’s own suggestions.)

Pitfalls

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.

24 comments

  • A caveat to “Breaking the Rules” – a lot of agents want different things. Some require a brief bio, some don’t give a flying fuck and prefer it to be kept off. Some want word count right up front, others want it at the end. Some want comparisons to existing works, others find that arrogant.

    Actually, I suppose that should be noted in with doing the research into individual agents.

    • @Kate:

      That may be true, but I didn’t find it all that much of an issue. I didn’t find many agents who, in their listings, were really that picky. Some are, but ultimately I don’t know that giving word count up front, in the middle, or at the end is a huge dealbreaker. I might be naive in this, but it feels to me that if you write a concise, compelling query letter, the precise placement of word count or whether you included a bio are going to be small concerns. Now, if an agent specifically says in a listing or on their site, “This is how I want it,” do that.

      I generally, with minimal variation, wrote the same query to each. The letter was different, but the query remained fairly consistent across the board.

      YMMV, etc.

      — c.

  • It may well be the YA agents that vary so broadly then. A lot of them like to offer advice (be it their blogs or tweets) and many give conflicting advice.

    Though, it’s true; in the end it’s the pitch that’s the important part and that advice never changes.

    • @Kate:

      Some agents are definitely picky. And it is good to follow their blogs and tweets (though one can also obsess about these things, worrying more about the inclusion of a bio than whether or not the pitch is solid). I’ll add that some agents are also prickly and inconsistent: you find a few that are hard to query and may even respond with something resembling passive-aggression.

      This isn’t common, mind you. 80-90% of agents are awesome, and I’m sympathetic to the horror they go through daily (piles of effluence arriving in their inboxes).

      The best are the ones that ask you for some small part of your novel — because then they’re getting a taste of more than just your ability to summarize a novel. As I understand it, some writers will pitch well but then show a novel that really doesn’t match the pitch in quality (or even, sadly, content).

      — c.

      • I’ll ALSO add:

        Some agents just plain won’t get back to you. Which is a bit on the rude side — I’d rather an automated “Hey, We’re Swamped” email than nothing at all. And some take FOREVER to respond. I sent my Blackbirds query, what, last autumn? Octoberish? And I got two responses in the spring. Long, long after I already had a novel.

        — c.

  • Fantastic advice. I definitely prefer this to being eaten by boars. Or the Query Shark.

    To me, a query’s always like an interview or an audition. This may be the only time an agent or publisher has any contact whatsoever with your writing.

    I write these couple hundred words more intently than any of the 100,000 that came before, because I really, really would rather not fuck it up.

  • Alright, I get what you’re saying, but what if I really am a unicorn? Like, truthfully and for real?

    I find the hardest part of pitches/queries to be waiting to hear back. I am in that boat on two of the right now, one for a short story, one for an article. It sucks. It sucks something that had already previously sucked, and is now an associate professor of suck at the suckorium.

    Beyond that, I took this workshop forever ago on screenwriting by one of the coolest mofos around, and he had this entire pitch thing set up. His art of the pitch was down to a science (as he has sold the same screenplay at least nine times when I knew him – he’s made a fortune of optioning that turns into development hell). Regardless, his advice was pretty much this – punch them in face, apologize, and promise to punch more people in the face for them. Basically, wow them, be cool, then show you can wow everyone they sell too.

  • Hey, no argument here. Stalking agents isn’t a good idea, but being aware of their personal tastes and query requirements when it comes time is essential. A great hook and a great teaser synopsis does trump everything else in the letter.

    Or I’m not making myself clear and I’ll shut up now and put your little nugget of writing the query first into practice. (’cause it seems like a damn good idea. That’s probably half the reason my first few attempts at novels have failed spectacularly.)

  • Good stuff.

    Last Thursday I was in a webinar with agent Kristen Nelson where she spoke specifically about the pitch in your query. She said they don’t even read the other part of your query unless the pitch paragraph is good. They just don’t have time. So really focus on making that pitch great.

    Her advice: make it like the back cover blurb. You must include the plot catalyst. I mean if there isn’t one, there isn’t a story, right?

    Like you Chuck, she also advises that you write the query/pitch before starting your novel so you can have a clear concise idea of what your book is about.

    I’m taking all this advice. Currently I’m working on the pitch for my next WIP and haven’t even started outlining. Hopefully it pays off. =)

    • Michelle —

      Glad to hear my advice lines up with agent advice. I can only speak for what worked for me, not what All Agents Always Want, but it’s nice to see some harmony there. 🙂

      Love to hear from people who try “pre-pitching” the novel before it’s written.

      — c.

    • That was my next question. How to write the hook? I’ve done some writing for the blurb but its just the narrowing it down that has me stumped. I feel like I have too many words and not enough details.

  • I definitely second the advice to write a query for a new novel before starting to write the novel.

    I’ve started sending around my current novel, and I wrote the query after having the opportunity to pitch to an agent in person. Getting that concise, I saw what mattered even more and did a quick polish on the manuscript to support the query better.

    As I get ready to jump into the next novel, I wrote the query letter for it, first, since I’m in that state on mind. I really think it will help me focus even more on the things that will hook agents and readers down the line.

  • I once wrote a 32 page book report. I got an A because, I suspect, the sheer effort I put into it compared with the measly (and requested) little ten-page efforts bullied her into thinking she’d crush my fragile little snowflake soul if she held me to the same standards.

    Conversely, I once got an F in high school because I wrote a risque letter filled with sexual references from the POV of a wealthy roman citizen. So…. screw you, uptight history teacher, I write full-fledged sex now. And get paid for it. Ass.

    Uh… What was I saying? Oh, this! Yes, I’ll be spreading this. Not like syphilis, but spread nonetheless. Thanks for summing it up so nicely!

  • I’ve yet to get a good straight answer about this, so here goes:

    If you haven’t been published before, what exactly should go in the query bio paragraph? “My name is blah and I’m from blah” sounds mighty pitiful. I’d be inclined to leave it off altogether, but what if that agent really, really wants a bio?

    • @Josh —

      An agent can answer that better than I can, but my thought would be no more than two lines of who you are, where you come from, and “this is his first novel.” Or something along those lines.

      — c.

  • Also, make sure you recheck your agent list right before send. We had one agent leave the business and his email was still getting queries three months after he was off the website. Oh yeah, check their websites too.

    This is advice every writer should be following! AKA don’t be a buttplug. 🙂

  • Thanks for the post. I like the tip to write your query before the book. I noticed that I was unconsciously doing that in my head on future projects…but I never wrote it down.

    Just about died laughing at the mental image of a human buttplug. I now wish I wrote screenplays.

  • Editors steal ideas like crazy, not necessarily for books as much as for magazines articles. Don’t pitch to any mag. editor anymore unless you keep the idea brief and demand at the least a pitch fee. They don’t fucking care about you. Really, they don’t. It’s better to be a bitch and leave with your pants on, then a pansy and leave in your underwear, and I have no idea where that came from but sure, you CAN quote me on that–for a FUCKING FEE!

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