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Query Letters Part 1: The Pitch

photo by Aaron Vowels

Last time I did my best to convince you that the query letter is a skill worth mastering [1]. The heart of the query, your pitch, is useful not just for querying agents but also for the back of your book, pitching to editors, plotting, problem-solving, and even brainstorming. Naturally, the next big question is, “Okay, how do I write one?”

Unfortunately, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Every query pitch is unique, as is every writer’s path to getting out a good one. Unless you have an extremely lucky knack for them, the answer will almost certainly involve lots of study, work, practice, repetition, practice, critique, and did I mention practice?

Nonetheless, there are certain nearly-universal guidelines you can use to get started. Today I’m going to give you my version of these in hopes that they help you with your own pitch writing, but keep in mind that reading and writing many pitches really is the best way to ingrain the pattern into your brain. Aside from going to bookstores and libraries to read the backs of lots of books (what works to make you want to keep reading? why? what doesn’t? why?), there are many wonderful resources for writers such as Query Shark [2], Agent Query Connect [3], and Writer’s Digest [4] where you can read real query letters and commentary on them.

And here’s one more important thing to keep in mind with your query: a pitch is not a summary. The goal of a summary is to encapsulate everything that happens in your book. The goal of a pitch is to make someone want to read more of your book. This means intentionally picking and choosing which information to include and which to leave out. Intrigue is a great way to pique interest.

What Goes In Your Pitch

The skeletal structure of most pitches will look something like this:

Of course, by the time you write it into sentences that flow from one to the next and make coherent sense, they might be in a different order, and you might have extra tidbits thrown in or even an element or two missing. That’s just fine, as long as the pitch works as a whole.

The attention-grabber should be your first sentence. Sometimes this will be your “elevator pitch.” Sometimes it won’t. Regardless, it should be in some way compelling. Depending on your genre, it can be witty, disturbing, surprising, gorgeous, funny, or anything else that will make a tired reader perk up. Don’t hold back; now is your time to hit ‘em with your best shot.

What I’m calling “essential premise” here isn’t necessary for all books/genres. I’m talking about world-building basics. Contemporary novels can often skip this unless the setting is unusual, but any speculative genre [5] will need to give some basics so we know if we’re in a medieval fantasy village, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or a radioactive cupcake factory. If the rest of the query doesn’t make sense unless you know the setting/premise, which also applies to time period and location, take a sentence or two to capture it.

Then get to the meat. Who’s your protagonist? What does he or she want? Why? What’s in her way? What happens if she can’t get it? These things should be in all pitches.

The antagonist should get some time too, though likely not as much. Who is he? (What’s in his way will likely be your protagonist.) What’s at stake if he fails or succeeds?

Some stories can carry a third character mention, though supporting characters usually shouldn’t take up much space in a pitch unless your story has a strong romance or relationship plot. Use judiciously.

All of this gets woven together in a way that builds tension (by highlighting stakes, conflict, and obstacles) up until the final closing, which should be some form of hook. Will your protagonist succeed? Will the couple get together? Will the antagonist destroy the world? You get the picture. It should leave the reader wanting to pick up your book to find out the answers to the questions your pitch has set up.

Other Tips

How long should the pitch portion of your query be? Aim for about 200-250 words. You can get away with slightly more depending on the book, as long as your query letter overall fits comfortably onto one page. (I’ll cover the other elements of a query letter, such as the intro and bio paragraphs, next time.)

That’s not a lot of words, so don’t waste your valuable space describing what happens in your sample pages/the early part of your book. Chances are that you don’t need to mention chapter one more than in passing, and agents and even book buyers will likely read this part in the decision-making process anyway.

Don’t give away the ending. Leave them wanting to read more. That’s the point, remember? (Note that you do give away the ending in a synopsis – just not in a pitch.)

For the sake of clarity and brevity, it’s rare that a pitch can hold more than three character names. If you need to mention extra characters, try doing so by role (“his brother” or “her best friend”) so there are less names to hold in your head while reading. Likewise, there’s usually no room to get into side plots.

Focus on your passion. What made you excited to write this book? Those are probably the things that will make someone excited to read it. Don’t waste space on mundanities or the things that all books have in common. Use your space to highlight what makes your book special and interesting.

Voice matters, but not as much as in a novel. Don’t worry about trying to sound like your protagonist or perfectly match the voice of your book, but do choose words carefully. Strong verbs and thoughtful descriptors still matter and convey tone. Your pitch won’t necessarily read like your manuscript, but it should give someone a good idea of what to expect in your manuscript.

Transitions are important. Using the skeleton to get started is great, but make sure it’s not just random sentences placed back to back. Your pitch should have a logical flow that carries the reader from one thought into the next. It should read interesting, like a mini-story.

No one can fully “see” their own pitch. After you have a draft, get a second, third, and fourth set of eyes on it to search for logic holes. If you can get some readers who don’t know anything about your book, even better, because after all, a new reader/agent/etc. doesn’t know anything going in. On the other hand, readers who have read your book are useful too. Ask them if your query accurately represents your book. You want to get well-matched requests/sales, not to disappoint or mislead.

And finally – assuming your manuscript is absolutely ready to go, of course – once you have a solid base that contains the right content and makes sense, then you can set to work getting detailed critique and polishing up your query. You only get one shot, after all; don’t blow it on a rush-job. Take your time and set out into the query world with your best foot forward.

Oh, and that practice thing again. Lather, rinse, repeat as needed. It took me multiple books and countless queries to get this particular skill down and start reliably receiving manuscript requests, but if I can do it, you can too. :)

Have you mastered your query pitch yet? Follow-up questions, tips, and additional thoughts welcome below!


About Annie Neugebauer [6]

Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) is a novelist, short story author, and award-winning poet with work appearing in over fifty venues, including Apex, Black Static, and Fireside. She's an active member of the Horror Writers Association and webmaster for the Poetry Society of Texas. In addition to Writer Unboxed, she's also a columnist for LItReactor. She's represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. When Annie’s not frightening strangers with her writing, she’s most likely frightening her husband and their two cats, Buttons and Snaps.