Last time I did my best to convince you that the query letter is a skill worth mastering. 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, Agent Query Connect, and Writer’s Digest 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:
- Essential Premise
- Supporting Character
- Closing Hook
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 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? [Read more…]