A Fantasy Author's Adventures in Fiction & Life

Tag: query tips

Book stall
Am I selling my book to the best of my ability? Photo by Maico Pereira 

With thousands of pitches set to pour through Twitter’s #Pitmad feed for literary agent and indie publisher perusal on Thursday, it’s time to tell you everything I know about crafting a quality book pitch. I’ll include tweet pitch examples, and advice which applies to query letter pitches and advertising material aimed at readers. If you’re writing a pitch as promotional material for your book, bear in mind that this post focuses on pitches aimed at literary agents and you will have more wiggle room with readers.

Book Pitch vs. Blurb

On Twitter, you will see people use ‘pitch’ and ‘blurb’ interchangeably. A pitch is NOT a blurb. A pitch aimed at literary agents or publishers will not get you requests if it doesn’t include specific ingredients, address them clearly and well (see below). Pitches often conform to particular formulas, like ‘Character is X, but when Y happens character must A or else incur terrible C.’ There are variations, which include essential pitch ingredients (see below). Whereas, a back-of-book blurb may or may not include all the essential ingredients of a pitch. A blurb may also include bonus details to appeal to readers, like thematic statements. (Thematic statements are mostly NOT included in pitches because they take up limited space and are usually not what sells a book to industry professionals).

Book Pitch vs. Log lines

You may see people advising, ‘Don’t name characters in pitches. State their role or what makes them unique instead. Definitely state their uniqueness, but I suspect this advice confuses log lines with a pitch. A log line is generally telling the audience (eg. at the movies) they’re in for a wild ride or a fun journey. It’s not trying to get a literary agent or publisher to care about or take interest in a main character. Its not trying to persuade busy agents and editors that they like this character so much or relate to them so well that they want to spend their limited time reading about this character. ‘Little Timmy’ is more likely to generate sympathy or to be relatable than ‘little no-name’. So I advise against log lines in Twitter pitches (in a query letter it may work), and for either, I say name your main character!

Basics

Over the past year, I have critiqued an estimated 100+ tweet pitches for various parties (not including revised pitches). This has helped me note patterns in essential ingredients and maximise opportunities to hook a reader. However, quality ingredients don’t guarantee a quality end product. So I won’t just list ingredients, I’ll explain why it’s important to address them well, then give advice on how to do so.

Essential Book Pitch Ingredients

Main Character
Inciting event, central conflict & stakes
Character growth that must occur for the MC to resolve conflict and avoid stakes or impossible choice the MC must make

Before we dive in

Remember that your pitch isn’t just saying ‘this is a great novel’. You’re telling an industry professional why they want to represent your novel. So how does your novel differ from others in your genre? What is unique about your character, inciting event, conflict, stakes & character growth? As you draft and revise your pitch, keep checking that it highlights what is most unique and compelling about your novel. Try to be as specific as you can in your pitch.

Note For SFF & Multiple POV Writers 

It’s tempting to write an opening which introduces the wonderful world you have created -but don’t. In a tweet pitch and even in a query letter, you aren’t selling your fantasy or scifi setting. You’re selling an intriguing character, with a compelling personal role to play in a conflict involving significant personal stakes. This is why it’s so hard to pitch multiple points of view. Its also why, if your novel has multiple points of view, I recommend giving the main characters a pitch to themselves, to do justice to each character’s arc. You may also write like to attempt a 2 pov pitch. A two pov tweet pitch normally has a sentence to introduce each character and a third sentence explaining their roles and stakes in the conflict.

Character

Seated woman in green dress wielding knife.
Photo by Ferdinand studio 

Your main character is your hook. Your goal is to introduce them that piques interest and or invite a literary agent or publisher to connect with them. (Do name your MC- thats a mental hook for details about them to hang on and makes more sympathetic than ‘random, un-named office worker’.)
A character description could be a single adjective, or a job title. Ideally, it will show or state what your character draws on to help them confront the conflict and be specific to your character.
Eg. fear of swimming from near-drowning as a child, in a story of personal growth in which she sees a child drowning offshore at a deserted beach. However you introduce your character, consider: what is the most unique thing about them? What helps them resolve the conflict and what are the most engaging word choices to show or describe that?

Character Intro Examples

“17 YO Jorden’s specialties are baking apple pie, hand to hand combat and leaping before he looks.” -Debbie Iancu-Haddad @debbieiancu.

“Elective mute Ashari remembers nothing before the void in her mind.” -Halla Williams @hallawilliams1.

If you’re struggling to find space for an engaging character introduction, you could use the inciting event as your hook and frame your introduction with it, as I have done here. “Thrust to power by death in the family, peace-born Ruarnon…” -Elise Carlson.

Inciting Event and Tension

You might like to frame your character introduction with ‘when’ to lead into the inciting event. ‘When’ is a good opening to lead into a collision of worlds, desires or wills etc. It amplifies the fact that the character we’ve just met and connected with is about to have their world turned upside-down and leaves us wondering how and what the outcome will be. (Try not to use the phrase ‘turned upside-down’. This phrase is common to many stories and can sound generic. If you use it, highlight the way in which that character’s life is changed. Or their emotional response/ reaction, to keep the focus on what is ‘unique’ about your story). Ending with a clash of wills with another character, or clash of morals between the character’s beliefs and actions -with an obstacle to their goal or resolution of the conflict- is a good way inject tension.

Inciting Event Examples

“His suicide mission: Build a bomb, destroy a space ship and save the world.” -Debbie Haddad.

“Having lost her memory in a storm, she chooses the unlikely safety of becoming a mercenary for the enigmatic Captain Westorr.” -Halla Williams.

“Monsters live under beds, but Julie is sure there’s one in her ceiling.” -mine.

Conflict

Two white birds grappling in mid air
Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash

An important thing to note with conflict is that in a pitch you don’t create conflict by saying ‘there’s a war on.’ Conflict here doesn’t refer to external plot events. It refers to your main character’s personal struggles within those events. Or to struggles in relationships necessary to achieve story goals, or to moral or ethical dilemma’s your main character faces. Again, inclusion of these personal elements creates opportunity for readers to connect emotionally to your character and story and for your pitch to hook them.

Of pitches I’ve critiqued, I would estimate that half do not clearly state the external conflict and or the main character’s role in it. Author bias really kicks in here. You know your story so well that your subconscious fills holes in your pitch. But critical readers can point them out, so you can fill holes and clarify that pitch for industry professionals. This is where I highly recommend trading pitch feedback with other writers.

Conflict Examples

“But falling in love wasn’t part of the plan…” -Debbie Iancu-Haddad.

“There’s only one way to find out and stop being scared -climb the tree beside the house and meet the THING!” -my picture book pitch.

Stakes

Once you have introduced a character and conflict which has hooked our interest, we need to know not only the external stakes, but the personal stakes your character faces. A pitch in which the stakes are ‘or the world will be destroyed’ is generic. Also, the world/ fantasy kingdom x’ is an anonymous entity the reader knows nothing about, so it has little impact on us. A character however, is someone we can connect with, so when you threaten that character, we feel something. If external conflict is key to your story, be sure to state the character’s role in it and the personal stakes their role entails.

(Conflict and) Stakes Examples

“…completing his mission means sacrificing the girl he loves.” -Debbie Haddad.

“But ‘safe’ is a relative term. For both of them.” -Halla Williams.

Character Growth and Impossible Choice/ More Tension

Perhaps the greatest place to hook a reader into your pitch emotionally is when you state how your character must grow or develop to overcome the conflict. If main character Jane hates estranged uncle Tom, but his knowledge is crucial to preventing granny’s murder, and Jane must forgive Tom’s past mistakes to enlist his help in saving Granny -that adds tension.

Specific demons from your character’s past (or other obstacles/ shortcomings) they must overcome to resolve the conflict are often what makes me lament your book not being in print yet. Think about how your character must change to overcome the conflict they face and try to include it in your pitch. If you struggle to identify how your character changes (I did in my first Pitmad), this may be a sign that your novel isn’t ready to query. It may signal that your main character’s arc needs another structural edit (as mine did.)

Impossible Choice Example

“…she must use her voice or let her captain perish.” -Halla Williams.

But Wait, There’s More

The Save the Cat Formula features an addition that may be difficult to fit in a pitch, but can make a pitch highly engaging to read. This final ingredient to kick your pitch up a level is adding a complication to your character’s ability to resolve the conflict. Then indicate how this complication raises the stakes. What factor makes it even harder for your MC to achieve their goal? Does a friend betray them? Do they lose an asset crucial to success at the eleventh hour? Can you jam this complication and an indication of how it raises the stakes into your pitch?

“When a monster army invades…” (the second conflict in my novel).

Tweet Pitch Examples which got Agent Likes

The above pitch elements may seem like a lot, and you may only fit some of them into each pitch -which is why it’s great you get 3- so you can highlight different elements in each one. Here’s the pitches I’ve referenced above -each reference is often sections of 2 different pitches.

Debbie Haddad’s Pitches (You’ll find her website here.)

Halla William’s Pitches . You’ll find her website here.

Late June update: Halla is now agented -congrats Halla!

My (Elise Carlson’s) pitch.


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How Do I Achieve All This in a Book Pitch On My Own?

You don’t. Whether you’re writing tweet pitches or a query letter pitch: tweet on #AmQuerying and #WritingCommunity asking who’s happy to trade pitch feedback. Offer to give others feedback in exchange. Most of what I’ve learnt about pitch craft came not from reading blogs like this, but from reading MANY tweet pitches. It also came from reading query letters -critically- and providing feedback to help other writers strengthen their pitches. Not all of this knowledge applied directly to my own pitches (to date), but all of it has given me valuable insights.

If you’d like to join a Discord Server focused on querying and including tweet pitch and query and synopsis feedback channels, let me know by replying to this tweet or using my contact page.

Another way to learn from other writers is to enter ‘#Pitmad’ (or other parties hashtag), and the genre tags you will pitch on into Twitter’s search bar, then reading the top pitches from previous parties. Some will unfortunately be rough and in need of editing, but many will be jaw dropping and great mentor pitches to learn from.

More Book Pitch and Related Resources

I’ve listed the pitch parties I’m aware of, which months they’re held in and links to Pitch Party websites here.

You’ll find resource links spanning Query Letters & Synopsis to Finding and Communicating with Literary Agents, in this post.

If you’re new to Twitter, the bottom section of my Social Media For Writer’s is full of advice to help you get started, and I’ve cataloged other #WritingCommunity hashtags to help you navigate the community in this Guide.

Querying Links: Letters & Literary Agents

Query Resources

Query Letter (&Synopsis) Advice

If you thought writing and editing your novel was the hardest thing you’ve ever done -bad news- its not. Writing a query letter which clearly introduces your main character, conflict and stakes isn’t easy. Doing so concisely is harder still. Crafting a query which invites industry professionals to connect with your character and care about their conflict which overall entices them, may seem impossible, at first. Great query crafting is an art (different to novel writing unfortunately) and requires honing a specific skill set. Luckily, there are many great resources listing the ingredients you need. More importantly, there are resources which model what skilful inclusion of pitch ingredients can look like. This post is a collection of querying help links to help you through query craft, communicating with literary agents and publishing.

Query Craft Links

My tip -don’t use emotionally distancing statements like, ‘it is revealed that.’ Keep your pitch in your MC’s pov with ‘She discovers that…’

Querying Your First Novel. This is my outline of the query letter writing, critiquing, editing and readiness process. It includes having realistic expectations around rejections and networking with fellow querying writers for much needed support in the trenches.

My favourite query letter instructions, in which humour illustrates nailing pitch components, is Patrick Bohan’s Mad Libs Formula Blog Post. It features a fictional pitch involving Bob the Builder and his Deathray.

For a detailed outline of query letter & pitch structure, literary agent preferences and specifics like “how do I personalise?” see my post on Query Letter Specifics.

A good successful, annotated query example is Susan Dennard’s. (She also has great articles covering writing, revising, agents and publishers.) 

For 600+ Successful Query Letters (cataloged by genre, with links to the letters) see this brilliant spreadsheet by Carissa Taylor. It will help you with everything you can do right in a query letter.

For examples of everything you could possibly do wrong in a query letter (and occasional excellent queries) -read QueryShark’s Blog. She’s a literary agent, and the right hand archives list query letters and her critiques of over years. Bad news -yes you have to browse by date. She recommends reading them all. But if for example, you write fantasy and most queries aren’t fantasy and have different weaknesses to yours, I’d read just her comments after the first 10-20 letters or skim for queries of your genre.

Then, moving beyond querying introductions, Advanced Querying Tips -by Sylvia Liu include many tid bits you won’t know not know if you haven’t talked much with querying writers. (Courtesy of @GenevievePuttay.)

When your query is ready, you may like to pitch your novel to Indie Publishers and literary agents in Twitter’s Pitch Parties. Here’s a pitch party list (with their website links), and a post on Crafting Tweet Pitches to help you with that.

Comparison Titles

Part of your successful query will be choosing appropriate comparison titles. These show literary agents there is an existing market for you book and that you know what it is. They can also indicate a lot about style, themes and overall novel features. This article explains comparison titles and has advice on finding them. I recommend googling ‘top 20 (insert genre & age) books of 2020/ the 4 previous years. You could also tell your local librarian a bit about your novel and see what comparison titles they can suggest. Then there are sites like whichbook.net (courtesy of @storiesbysusan), which let you enter criteria for characters and plot, to hunt comp titles on.

When you think your letter is ready, here’s a handy graphic to help you check.

Synopsis Tips

There’s varying advice on how to write a synopsis. I’ve heard “write one sentence per chapter,” but every chapter won’t always be a story beat. Some chapters just allow the reader to take a break from story beats and develop characters subtly -so they don’t need mentioning in the synopsis. I recommend writing only the main beats eg. a line for character/ world introduction, a line for the inciting event etc. A great resource for that is this article by Susan Dennard.

For more synopsis advice and tips on how your synopsis differs from your query letter, see this article by the

How to Write a Query Letter site. For advice on synopsis content, voice and more, see this article by literary agent Kaitlyn Johnson.

Query Motivation -#Pitmad If you need a deadline/ pressure to make you knuckle down -participate in #Pitmad. With four pitch parties a year open to all genres (in March, June, September and December) that gives you four regular deadlines to have your pitch (and final MS polish if you struggle with that) polished to perfection.

Critical Feedback

Query Letter (&Synopsis) Feedback

Knowing When Your Query Is Finished

Writing a query is HARD. Reading guides, tips and especially successful queries is helpful. But how do you know that you HAVE successfully applied most of the advice to your query? One way to assess this unhindered by author bias (knowing the novel and query too well) is getting feedback.

Free Query & Synopsis Feedback

You can tweet in the #WritingCommunity offering to trade feedback (like I did here). Then setting up a DM group to trade emails and documents. The best time to do so is before or soon after #Pitmad, when many writers of all genres will be preparing to query. Some Discord Servers may have a channel for seeking query letter and synopsis feedback (like mine).

Workshops I haven’t had the opportunity to attend a pitch crafting workshop. But I’ve seen the difference it makes to other writers query letters (it’s no coincidence two such writers got agent likes in #Pitmad). If you get the chance to attend one -I’d take it!

Professional Critiques: I’ve heard mixed reviews about the effectiveness of these. So I would ask for recommendations from other writers before paying for one. QueryShark will critique for free if you agree to the critique being displayed on her blog for others to learn from. Manuscript Academy offers paid critiques and paid consultations with literary agents.

Querying & Literary Agents

Women writing notes and placing sticky notes on a whiteboard.

Literary Agents Introduction

The first thing I stumbled across about literary agents was warnings against disreputable agents and frauds. If you haven’t read up on this, there’s good general information and tips on what to be wary of on Science Fiction Writers of America.
The Basics Eg. ‘why do you need a literary agent?’ ‘how do I submit?’ etc see AgentQuery.

Where and How to Find Literary Agents? See Eric Smith’s A Beginner’s Guide to Looking Up Literary Agents.

Wondering whether to query a new literary agent? Here’s an advice blog on pro’s and con’s.

Youtube Channels with Great Query and Literary Agent Info & Advice include former literary agent Meg Latorre’s Query Tips and Agent Information on her iwriterly channel (which has other great advice). And Alexa Donne’s Getting an Agent videos from her author channel (which is also packed advice).

I’ve listed four databases for finding literary agents below. You can also (if you write an AMAZING pitch, find them in twitter pitch parties. More info in this post).

Literary Agent Databases

Manuscript Wishlist is searchable by genre and gives up-to-date and sometimes more detailed than literary agency profile information on what specific literary agents are seeking. I used it to compile my agents to potentially query long list. You can also search #MSWL on twitter for what literary agents are tweeting they want right now, but they may not have tweeted recently so this can be hit and miss. (Don’t tweet on this hashtag -its only for agents and publishers to tweet on).

Agentquery has a database of literary agents.

QueryTracker is an agent database. It allows you to record agents you wish to query to or not query, and what stage your query has progressed to with particular agents -submitted query/ partial request/ full request, etc. It’s a great way to avoid accidentally submitting to the same agent twice. It also lets you record whom you think it’s inappropriate to submit to, so you don’t waste time reading about them again if you search the database multiple times. Premium ($25 a year) lets you see where your query is in any one agent’s queue and has other features.

LitRejections

I like this database because it has extensive lists of individual agents, agencies and genres they accept by country, including the UK, US, Canada, Australia and some European countries. You have to be a member to view lists, but it’s free to join.

If you use databases, blogs or lists to find literary agents -CHECK THE AGENT WEBSITE for up-to-date SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. Also check they ARE CURRENTLY OPEN to unsolicited submissions, to avoid being rejected or ignored for acting on out of date or incorrect information.

Communicating With Literary Agents

For Cheat Sheets/ Templates to contact literary agents for a range of reasons, see this excellent post by @themoosef.

FAQS about Agents Offering Representation, from agent phone calls to contracts are answered thoroughly by Agent Query in this article.

When You Get The Call, here are some questions to ask the literary agent offering representation, by Bookends Literary Agency. And some questions a literary agent may ask you, by former literary agent Mary Kole.

When You Get An Offer here’s an article of things to consider while deciding if you’ve found the right agent for you and your book, by a writer who said “no” to an agent.

Publishing & Marketing Resources

As with agents, you could google publishing agencies. If you do, be wary of vanity presses masquerading as traditional publishers. These will charge you for printing and do very little to promote sales of your book (Austin Macauley tops that list). In general, if they find you or anyone offers you a deal that seems too good to be true -it’s probably a lie. Also be wary of hybrid or ebook publishers claiming to be ‘traditional publishers’ -if they may expect you to cover some costs, they aren’t traditional publishers. And if they only sell ebooks -whats the difference in their profits compared to a publisher who also sells hard copy? It’s worth finding out before you consider signing anything.

Types of Publishers/ Publishing & Choosing One by Joanna Maciejewska (c.o. @cr_burman).

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Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity has a comprehensive list of publishers accepting unsolicited submissions (in multiple countries). It also has a long list of articles about self-publishing and other useful resources such as contests, and where to get reviews.

Author’s Publish is a mailing list. One of the emails they send regularly is a comprehensive, free ebook guide to publishing. Their emails also contain reviews and lists of publishers and magazines accepting unsolicited submissions.

Profit and Loss –How Publishers Decide What to Publish, by Jane Friedman.

Small Presses

3 Unique Research Methods for Identifying Small Publishers by Jane Friedman.

If you publish directly with a publisher, The Society of Authors and Authors Guild both offer legal advice on publishing contracts to their members (c.o. @GenevievePuttay).

Related Reading

For a list of Twitter pitch parties to pitch your novel in, see this post.

For advice on crafting query letter or tweet pitches, see this one.

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