A Fantasy Author's Adventures in Fiction & Life

Tag: tips for querying fiction

Comprehensive Query Letter Tips

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Photo by Gemma Evans

There’s a general structure for query letters and query letter pitches, but there are also specifics about which literary agents may have differing personal preferences. In the query letter tips below, I outline what I’ve learnt from giving feedback on an estimated forty queries, and reading a similar number of successful ones. I’ll provide structure and advice on specifics (with tips on how to identify literary agent preferences).

Beginning Your Letter

The Greeting Yes, you want your greeting to be professional, but the formal “Dear Mr/ Mx/ Mz etc” may sound distancing. It also requires you to check a female literary agent’s marital status, and runs the risk of misgendering a literary agent. As a literary agent is a potential partner in bringing your book into the world, I prefer Dear First Name, as do a few literary agents in this thread. If you’re not sure how best to greet an agent, you might like to do a search of their @ on social media, #AskAgent and ‘greeting’ to see if they’ve posted a preference.

If you Prepare Queries for Multiple Agents At Once -make sure you have their name right! Have a system to ensure you fill details like names and personalisation correctly —every submission. I fill in the email subject line for all first, name each, personalisation each, then copy the pitch. Sometimes I alter the bio to suit the agent, then paste my sign off and contact details. Is spelling an agent’s name wrong cause for rejection? Not for Kortney Price -just don’t call her “Dear Sir”.

Line One

I never begin with ‘I am seeking representation for…’ If your query is by email, your subject line will probably read, “Query, TITLE, Genre, Audience Age” -so the agent knows what you want. If you’re submitting via Query Manager —again, they know. Besides, can you imagine receiving a few hundred (or thousand) queries a month beginning with the exact same phrase?

Paragraph One

There is a lot of advice saying that the title, genre, audience age, wordcount and comp title paragraph goes after the pitch. I’ve come across agents wanting to read the pitch first (eg. Carrie Howland & Pam Phonomena ), and agents who don’t mind (eg. Anne Rose). Query Shark insists the pitch goes first. But I’ve also seen advice to put the manuscript title and word count upfront (eg. Susan Dennard).

I include my title, genre, audience age and word count with personalisation. That way, the agent knows my genre (which could be Scifi or Fantasy from my pitch) upfront, and my word count shows straight away that my manuscript isn’t in dire need of editing and isn’t a hard pass on those grounds. (My comp titles go in a separate paragraph after my pitch.)

Personalisation -What Does it Mean and Why Does it Matter?

For some literary agents, a polite greeting by name is enough for personalisation (eg. Maria Vicente, Naomi Davis ). Other agents like to see indications you’ve done your homework about them, or their agency (eg. KT Literary). To see if a particular agent has a preference beyond being greeted by name, do a social media search of ‘@(whomever)’ and ‘personalisation’ with ‘#AskAgent’. If you’re lucky, the agent you’re querying will dislike personalisation sentences altogether (like Jessica Alverez), and you won’t need to bother.

If You Add Personalisation, What Should it say?

Don’t be weird -eg. don’t tell them the dream you had about them. Or gush about how wonderful they are. If you’ve had prior contact, via a conference for example, or if an agent liked your pitch party pitch, that’s worth opening with. (Embed the pitch or paste its text and a link to it above your query pitch).

If you’re keen on a particular agent and research their clients and books, you could mention how either is similar to yours (yet also different -your work not being a duplicate). Alternatively, you could Google literary agent interviews/ profiles to see if your share a taste in books or films (as Peter Knappe likes), or have other shared interests impacting your writing.

What if you don’t fancy researching 50+ agents?

I personally don’t look at interviews and sometimes not even at social media at the query stage. It’s a time consuming investment which I suspect is unlikely to pay off. I check the agent’s long Manuscript Wishlist, and their MSWL tweets, filtered on this site and make a connection between my novel and the agent’s MSWL. If the agent doesn’t have MSWL, I make connections to particulars on their agency or personal website. If that doesn’t turn up much, you might jump straight to the pitch -the most important part- as Mandy Hubbard and Naomi Davis advocate.

The Pitch

The Hook

A concise hook and that packs a punch about your MC (who is ideally a hook too) or something unique about your premise/ story, is an ideal way to begin. You want your hook to say “this book is interesting, original and you want to read my pages.” If you struggle, perhaps write and revise your pitch first, then decide what the hook should highlight. Writing a Killer LogLine by Graeme Shimmin may help.

Orienting the Reader in Your Story

If your querying SFF or a setting crucial to plot that isn’t contemporary Earth (or you query America with a non-American setting) -orient the reader. Begin with a clear indication of time and or location. Example, ‘It’s 1923 at the Bermuda Triangle…” If you don’t state genre until after your pitch, you could suggest it with genre-specific clues (eg. airships signals steampunk), within the pitch.

The MC

Woman with brown floral crown wielding dagger, seated in a green dress.
Photo by Ferdinand studio

This isn’t just an introduction. This is your chance to tell a literary agent what makes your MC different to the many other’s in your genre and their inbox. It’s your chance to show off some of your MC’s personality. You can do this in how you describe them and their job, or their wants or goal in the first line. In introducing your MC, you want to show an industry professional a character they want to spend time with. You’re persuading them to follow that character’s journey throughout the story. Try and show something about your MC which is relatable, invites a reader to make a personal connection and to root for your MC.

The MC’s introduction is also a place to begin showcasing your novel’s voice. To help develop your voice, consider how would your MC describe themself? What would they want others to know about them? What would their friends or family say about them? Is there a key sentence of dialogue or narration you can adapt from your MS into your MC’s intro?

Inciting Incident

This may not be a sentence of its own. It might follow on from the MC intro or even combine with it.

Eg. “College student Lizzie didn’t plan on receiving her education by distance, but when a loan shark’s fists show up wanting the money her absentee uncle owes them, life on the run is suddenly appealing.”

You might also want to include how the inciting incident makes the MC’s initial goal or want harder.

“Lizzie thought balancing part time work with completing a dissertation was hard, but meeting assignment deadlines while dodging armed thugs is a whole new project.”

Conflict & Stakes

Two white birds grappling in mid air.
Photo by Chris Sabor

Clarity & What’s Unique

At this point, it’s crucial to remember that a literary agent has no idea the “government” your “rebels” are rebelling against are aristocratic werewolves, who hunt unsuspecting plebs at full moon. This section of your query isn’t just about making your conflict clear, it’s showcasing what’s unique, and how the protagonist and antagonist interests clash. SFF writers, if you name anything which doesn’t exist outside your story world —tell/ show the reader what it is. I’ve critiqued a few SFF query pitches where “whatever-that-thing-is” is crucial to the plot, and its frustrating reading.

Character Role

I’ve critiqued pitches where there’s a big external conflict, and the query pitch doesn’t state the main character’s role in it. No matter how elaborate your external plot and story world may be —character is key. You’ve got to sell your MC at every stage of your pitch. Don’t stop with “MC joins the rebel fight against the evil empire.” Say what drives your MC. If you can, include something unique the MC draws on to fulfill the role only they can play in combating the evil empire.

Stakes

“Or the world will be destroyed” might be your stakes. But the reader doesn’t know much about your world, or its rebels. They’re just vague entities and faceless people the reader has no emotional attachment to. Why should we care if either dies? But if the evil empire demolishes the suburb where dear old grandad, who inspired your MC to join the Justice League lives, and he’s going to die and your MC will be devastated, then we’ll care. ‘Stakes’ can mean external stakes, but if you want to have an emotional impact on the reader -make stakes personal to your MC too.

Complication

Sure, my MC is 16. The uncle they love dearly -their mentor- is dead. Their parents have been abducted and they’re under siege by a vastly more powerful enemy. But what if something else amps up the stakes? Speeds up the ticking clock? There’s already a war between two kingdoms in my novel, but both sides are humans. Until a monster horde unleashed by a third ruler with an unknown agenda rocks up, and the entire continent is threatened.

Examples of this; in fleeing for her life, Lizzie discovers that not only are loan sharks after her uncle’s money, but her uncle has indebted himself to the mafia to pay back the loan sharks. Or the rebel learns the aristocratic werewolves are allied with vampires to dispose of political opponents. You might want to mention how a complication threatens your MC (and their dog for good measure) and makes their role in the conflict more difficult.

End with Tension and or an Impossible Choice

The rebellion needs your MC’s help to fight the vampires who threaten everyone’s families. But it’s the full moon, and a werewolf aristocrat (mistakenly) suspects your MC’s best friend joined the rebels and is after said friend’s blood. There’s no-one to defend said friend, unless your MC abandons the rebels. In other words show how, to fulfil their goal and save the day, the MC must risk or sacrifice something precious to them. Or mention the complicating threat your MC can’t see, which is charging at them sideways, then end with that tension.

Man standing with back pack on, at fork in leaf carpeted forest path, bright trees on the left path, dark shadows on the right.
Photo by Markus Spiske o

The Rest of Query

Business Paragraph

As said above, your title, genre, audience age and word count (if you didn’t share them above) go here. Different literary agents may hard pass on the basis of differing word counts for the same genre and audience age range. This thread by Kelly from Rees Agency gives an indication on certain genres and ages.

Comp Titles

How many do you need? Two seems preferred, as indicated by former Literary Assistant Christina Kaye here. The most common advice I’ve seen on these is published within the last five years, with variations being within the last three. Choosing two such titles shows there is a market for your book and that you know what it is. If you struggle to find a title of a similar style book to yours, you can cite major elements in common.

For example, one of my titles is to comp a complex political and military conflict, while the second is for friendships and mentoring relationships. If you want to use older comps, it’s worth checking if a particular agent is ok with them, as three agents on this thread were.

Finding Comps

I Google (genre), (audience age), top 20/50 books of (2020/ 2019 etc), sometimes including ‘Goodreads’ or ‘Amazon’. Local librarians can be a great help. They tend to be avid readers, so I’d describe your novel to them and see what potential comps they can recommend. If you’re struggling to find a comp (most of us do), bear in mind vague or ill-fitting comps can be worse than none, as Jim MacCarthy warns. For more information about comp titles and advice on how to find them, see this post by An Willis.

Bio

Put it last -you’re pitching a novel, not yourself. So keep your bio brief and highlight why you personally are qualified to write this book. Include any publishing credits or writing qualifications, including life or #OwnVoices experiences related to your MC, their situation, or your audience. For example, I write YA and my bio mentions that I’m a teacher.

If you’re a debut author (I wouldn’t state so), and have participated in a mentorship (eg. Author Mentor Match etc) I’d include that. It demonstrates dedication to your craft and your willingness to grow as a writer. I’d also mention if you’re a member of a writers society, example Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators, for the same reason.

If you don’t have writing qualifications, or publishing credits, you might just mention other qualifications, your day job, family, being a cat’s slave etc. As James Gowan says -simple is fine. Furthermore, this isn’t just the “Why I’m the right person to write my book and a professional writer” paragraph. It’s also the “here’s an insight into what I’m like as a person you may want to work with paragraph.” So you may want to include a fun fact and or show personality in your bio’s writing style.

Sign Off

I wouldn’t worry about, “I have attached x in accordance with your guidelines”. For an email submission -they’ll assume you have, unless you aggravate them by not following guidelines. But do thank the agent/ acquiring editor for taking the time to consider your work.

Contact Details

I‘m not going through Query Shark’s archive to find and link the blog in which she said not to include the words ‘phone no.,’ ‘email,’ ‘twitter’ ‘website’ ect because literary agents will recognise them. I’m just going to say, save words in the precious word count by stating each of your contact details on a new line.

The Query Letter Feedback

I can’t say enough about how important it is to get other writers, with no idea what your novel is about and fresh eyes, to give query letter feedback. If you can’t see the wood for the trees, seek feedback from writers you know, post offering to trade it, or join a Discord Server to trade it. If you’d like to join mine (which is open to all writers for craft & querying discussion), let me know by replying to my posts on Blue Sky or Mastodon or via my contact page.

As with your manuscript, judging when your query letter is ready to submit is a difficult decision. Premature querying is common (tips on avoiding that here). Circumstance with critical readers and my editor prevented me from premature querying not once, but twice.

Author bias can you blind you to ‘obvious’ mistakes or unclear sentences etc. Critical readers have an important role to play in helping ensure your query package is truly the best you can produce without a literary agent or editor’s assistance.

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Further Reading

Patrick Bohan’s Mad Libs Formula Blog Post uses humour in a fictional pitch to accentuate everything your query letter needs to get right. Susan Dennard’s successful query letter is annotated with what to do for each section.

If you’d like to read more about the pitch, see my pitch crafting post.

For a list of resource links spanning Query Letters & Synopsis to Finding and Communicating with Literary Agents, see this post.

What’s Querying A Novel Like?

As a member of a querying writers group, I’ve watched writers wait 6 months to receive full manuscript rejections, or go months without receiving so much as a form rejection for queries. I’ve learned a lot about having realistic expectations and how to tackle the querying process. In these querying interviews, I interview some of those writers, with the aim of giving newly querying writers insights into what to expect on your journey, and advice. And to give those of you already on your querying journey a chance to reflect and possibly tweak your approach to querying.

Where Are You Querying From & Which Genres?

(Scroll right to see Debbie Hadad’s details).

Cheryl
Burman
Alexandrina
Brant
Susan
Waters
Juliana Savia ClaytonMelissaDebbie Hadad
FromUKUKCanadaUSAustraliaIsrael
GenreHistoricalFantasyScifiDystopianScifi
How long for?3 years2 months?5 months7 months (Tapered off July to write second).1 month1.5 years

What did you Think Querying Would Be Like?

Susan Way, way back I thought it was going to be every door slamming before I could get near it, but then when I learned that normal people can get literary agents, I realised I could be one of them. But at any point you get reminded it’s going to be hard and you’re going to get lots of rejections.

Alexandrina This is not my first time querying. This time round I wanted to go in with my excel spreadsheet and make it as ordered as possible. 10 queries at a time, wait 2 months, do another 10. I came into querying with a definite plan. I didn’t stick to it.

Debbie I think I underestimated how disheartening it could be and how much emotional energy it takes to keep going. If only you could just hand it to an agency to keep submitting or if there was an app like Book Tinder! Put your query up and if an agent likes it they swipe right and get your pages!

Melissa I did a lot of research and had an idea of agents taking a long time to respond, or not at all. I knew it was pretty hard to find an agent -if at all. I never planned to write a picture book. I’m not relying on this to get an agent.

It would be wonderful to be traditionally published for that kind of validation…

Cheryl

What has Querying Actually Been like?

Susan's head shot.
Susan’s Querying Experience

I definitely know now that literary agents are normal people. Some of them have giant egos. Some of them are very, very humble. You learn which one you might want to work with.

And Twitter is a good way to see, at least, from what they choose to put out there, what they might be like. You still get an idea of their sense of humour and professionalism. It’s a good place to look for red flags, if nothing else.

Susan Personalisation, I don’t know what to do with that. Eg. “I saw on September 17th that you like spaghetti”. [My blog on query letters will address this later this week, and be included in my newsletter going out Oct 23rd].

Cheryl's headshot
Cheryl’s Querying Experience

In the UK you can only really query agents directly. The big publishing houses don’t take direct submissions, like some of them do in Australia. It’s a really time consuming process, just hunting down agents who potentially might be interested.

“Because that one (Cheryl’s second novel) is totally in my control… I have made the decision to self publish that. It could have been a minimum of four years before Keepers got on the market. I’ll be on my walking frame by then, so I just want to get it out there. I’m not interested in making gallons of money. That would be nice, though that’s not going to happen.

Alexandrina reclining in a hollow tree trunk.
Alexandrina‘s Querying Experience

Every rejection you get is a knock back. That feeling of ‘do I need to leave this for another month? Do I need to hold back on my next batch? And re-work it and look for more querying partners?

Elise Do you feel like you’re overthinking or being a bit too cautious?

I always go by the reactions I have per round. If I haven’t got a reaction out of ten or from agents with similar things on their list then something’s not quite right.

Alexandrina For my third round, I’m focusing on the whole novel, not just what could be wrong in the opening. There’s always a chance I could get that full request, so I want the whole novel to be the best.

Elise How long do you think querying might take and how long are you prepared to pursue traditional publishing?

Alexandrina I could send 100 queries then call it quits. It depends how much feedback I can get.

Debbie wearing a shirt saying 'Just Don't Care.'
Debbie’s Querying Experience

I sent out a few, then waited a few months. It’s like, will you please reject me? I rewrote my first chapter 6-10 times after letting it sit for a year. Then I got a request.

What have been your Biggest Learnings so far?

Alexandrina Be more social. I never actively searched for a critique partner via Twitter. I never found DM groups. Pitch parties… I feel like I have more confidence to say, ‘Hi. I see you’re doing x, y, z. Do you want to swap pages?’

Susan How much you should be ready to put yourself in a box. They want you to be clearly one thing. I wrote a book about an 18 yo, and it’s not really a dystopia… but it might be, and there’s serious situations, and comedy, and I don’t really know how to do comps but please just read this!

Melissa It’s well worth paying for services like Query Tracker. I learnt the value of it when it was discussed in my query group. Looking back, I probably queried prematurely. I had revised a lot. I did have feedback. But I think I needed to go through again.

Juliana’s Learnings

I didn’t make too many tweaks. I know a lot of people make many on their first pages. I think that way lies madness. At some point you have to let your baby go.

About a month in, when I wasn’t getting the response that I wanted I reached out to an editor, @AmQueryingH, and she’s amazing. She did my query and first five pages. I had the bones of the query, but she really amped it up and that was the query that got me a couple of responses.

I didn’t realise how competitive the market is. Its more about being better than good enough. And a million other things that you don’t know about.

That was such an eye opening moment. It wasn’t my writing. It wasn’t that it was a dystopia. It wasn’t that he thought it wasn’t marketable. It was just that he already had that book.

You don’t have all the reasons why (for a rejection). Sometimes that makes it sting a little less. Sometimes the bourbon makes it sting a little less. And cuddling the cats and a very supportive husband…

Debbie’s Learnings

People always say don’t take it (rejections) personally. To pick yourself up after a rejection is hard. After a while you develop fatalism. It’s like “has my rejection come through yet?”

The more I learned, the more I realised I didn’t know. I learned you need to let it (your manuscript) sit. You are completely blind to the first draft. You have to have other eyes on it. When you read for someone else you pick up patterns. You need someone to help you notice yours and break you out of them.

Listen to feedback you trust. Listen to your gut. If you listen to feedback from everyone, you’ll go mad.

Be willing to implement advice. Get rid of things you really like if it improves the story. You need to be confident enough to think you’re good enough and humble.

You’re blind to your manuscript’s faults because you’re so in love with it that you can’t see what’s wrong with it.

Like phrases you use too much. I removed characters and rewrote from third person past tense to first person dual point of view.

What Advice would you give to Writers Beginning Their Querying Journey?

Melissa I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. You can’t rely on one path to get you through. Have a process for dealing with rejections. (Some writers)… have a dream agent or a few dream agents in mind and I feel like that’s setting yourself up for disappointment.

Alex Take on feedback. Actively look for feedback. Know this agent looks for this because of this interview.

Susan Even if you do fit into more than one category, you have to know how to make yourself fit into the boxes the agents want to fit. Accept that you’ve got to follow the established rule for comps. Actually read at least enough of them to understand why you’re comping it. Ask people who have experience with querying… who’ve gotten to have informal conversations with agents (at conferences). Go to any conferences available to you. If not, find people who’ve been there (not stalking ?).

Cheryls’ Advice
Cheryl's headshot

Do not start querying until you are super, super happy with your manuscript. Give it to as many readers as possible and beg for their honest views. Re-write. Re-write.

-Cheryl

Tell them you’re not just interested in where the commas are. You really want to know if the story works and how do the characters come across. So ask questions. [For an example of possible questions, see my chapter one critical reader checklist.]

Think about your comps very carefully. Think about style, tone, voice -is it similar? Don’t be too specific about the story.

Make sure you read the submission guidelines very, very carefully. If they ask for 50 pages, send 50.

In terms of getting your manuscript ready, make sure you’ve actually written it technically properly… point of view… dialogue.. make sure you learn those things from other writers. From reading books like Dave King and Renee Brown’s Self Editing for Fiction Writers.

Because an agent’s just going to throw it out the door… they need just the slightest excuse to move on to the next one.

Juliana’s Advice
Juliana's head shot

After living the rejections, it gets easier. It really does.

By my 80th rejection it was, “well at least I heard back. That was nice.” I had 5 agents say, “That wasn’t for me, but I hope you’ll keep me in mind for future work.” So make sure you read your rejections all the way through, because it usually comes at the end if they say that…

If they say “I’d love to read this”, that means they want the full…

Keep track of it. Query Tracker is a really good website.

For my future queries, I have that sheet with who wanted more and whose responses were kind and personalised. I got a couple that were kind of scathing like, “consider joining a critique group.” Like, I am. I got one that just said, “Thank you. This isn’t for me.”

I can’t emphasize enough: have a support system. Nobody gets it like a writer gets it.

Debbie’s Advice

Seriously, make a list of 50 people. Collect 100 rejections. Treat it as an exercise. Be persistent. It’s a long long process. Finding an agent by Friday is like walking down the street and finding a bag of gold. It’s like going on a first blind date and expecting that person to be the one. You need to date a lot of weirdos before you find the one. It’s the same with querying.

Agents have to practically marry your manuscript to represent you. They’re going to be going over it so many times and pushing it to other people.

I need to make a decision if I’m going to keep querying or self publishing. I really love my books and I think they are publish worthy. I believe they will find a home in readers hearts. You can’t know if there’s a cavern of gold and you’re centimetres away. We don’t know how far we are from the cavern or if there is a cavern.

I kind of want to say don’t give up because you could succeed tomorrow, but you don’t want to be querying forever.

Debbie wearing a shirt saying 'Just Don't Care.'
Debbie Iancu Hadad

Two short stories of mine appeared in the anthology ‘Achten Tan: Land of Dust and Bone (Tales from the Year Between, Book 1)’. Currently querying a couple of YA SFF novels, participating in three different anthologies, writing vss on Twitter and buying way too much stuff on Aliexpress. For my day job I give lectures on humor and serve as a personal chauffeur for my two teenagers. Residing in Meitar, Israel. You’ll find her on Twitter @debbieiancu.

Susan's head shot.
Susan Waters

lives in Ontario, Canada. Her writing, however, usually features her east coast roots, whether by landscape or by culture. Her first novel is an upper YA Speculative Fiction she hopes is the first volume in a series. Currently she’s penning an adult romantic comedy while plotting half a dozen stories, most of which blend science fantasy and humour. You’ll find her on Twitter @storiesbysusan.

Cheryl's headshot
Cheryl Burman

lives in the beautiful Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, UK. Her first novel was a fantasy middle-grade trilogy but she has since taken to adult historical fiction. Her co-authored novel The Shanty Keeper’s Wife is currently being queried and she has also written a  romance set in Australia in the 1950s. Her current WIP uses the Forest of Dean as its backdrop and is a magical realism novel about a young woman who becomes a hedge witch – and a little bit more.At the end: She also writes short stories and flash fiction, a few of which have won prizes. She also writes short stories and flash fiction, a few of which have won prizes. You’ll find her on Twitter @cr_burman.

Juliana's head shot
Juliana Savia Clayton

I write young adult novels and picture books. Currently, I’m working on a YA Romcom. I am an active SCBWI member, serving as the Indiana chapter’s Volunteer Coordinator. I am also a member of the Indiana Writers Center. In my day job, I edit environmental documents, and I have one published non-fiction article in my field. You’ll find her on Twitter @kidlit_writer.

Alexandrina reclining in a hollow tree trunk.
Alexandrina Brant

Raised on a diet of Tolkien, Doctor Who, and Agatha Christie, Alexandrina Brant grew up around the city of Oxford, England. After graduating from the University of Reading with joint honours in Psychology & Philosophy, she hightailed it to London to study a Master’s in Linguistics at UCL, where her focus was sociolinguistics and dialect blending. She currently lives in Yorkshire with her husband and two warring cats. Her short stories have been published in several local anthologies and she is working on a Steampunk novel about a linguist’s journey to rescue her fiancé and a Doctor-Who-esque sci fi about lesbian aliens trying to save a corrupt planet. She keeps up with the bookish community on Instagram @lingua_fabularum. You’ll find her on Twitter @caelestia_flora.

Melissa's headshot
Melissa-Jane Nguyen

is an Aussie freelance writer and editor and mum to two little ones. She has writing published in Kidspot and Essential Baby, she sends out a fortnightly newsletter that combines aspects of writing and parenting, and she runs a short story publication with her sister. Melissa is currently working on querying and writing picture books, planning a middle grade novel, and letting a young adult manuscript marinate for a while before turning it on its head and rewriting the entire thing. Melissa is (sort of) becoming an expert at juggling lots of projects simultaneously. If you can get her to sit down for a chat, she’s partial to any kind of tea and will happily relate all she’s discovered about celebrities and topics she has no real interest in but has researched thoroughly as a result of falling down rabbit holes. You’ll find her on Twitter @MJEditing.

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Related Reading

Querying Your First Novel

Crafting A Quality Pitch

Resource links spanning Query Letters & Synopsis to Finding and Communicating with Literary Agents: this post.


Bird's eye view o long bookstall tables with books arranged across it, sellers seated  on one side, buyers standing on the other.
Am I selling my book to the best of my ability? Photo by Maico Pereira 

Whether you’re pitching to hook literary agents or readers, either way, you want to do it WELL. This blog focuses more on pitches for literary agents and publishers who take unagented work, but there’s still plenty for querying writers and indie authors both to learn. (And indie authors will have more wriggle room than this blog implies. It becomes ‘know the rules and know why you’re breaking them’ more for indie authors than traditional publishing pursuing writers).

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

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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

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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.)

Crafting a Quality Book Pitch
Tweet: The day teen eco-terrorist Jorden Lund left Earth he had 4 months left to live.
His suicide mission: build a bomb, destroy a space ship and save the world.
But falling in love wasn't part of the plan and completing the mission means sacrificing the girl he loves.

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

Late June 2020 update: Halla is now agented -congrats Halla!

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

You don’t. Whether you’re writing pitches, a query letter or book blurb, you can post on social media asking who’s happy to trade pitch feedback (which will get you more response than asking and not offering to return the favour).

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 my posts about it on Blue Sky on Mastodon, or via my contact page.

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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 social media Writing Communities, see my Social Media For Writer’s post, or Blue Sky Newby Guide to help you get started.

Querying Links: Letters & Literary Agents

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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 Comprehensive Querying Tips.

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 Pitch Parties. Here’s a pitch party list (with their website links), and a post on Crafting A Quality Pitch 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.

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

Text: Critical FeedbackImage: blank page notebook and pencil on a table top.

Query Letter (&Synopsis) Feedback

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 Post in a social media #WritingCommunity offering to trade feedback. 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

Before we go into details and agent resources, if you’re new to querying, you might like to read my post on Querying Your First Novel.

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).

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).

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Related Reading

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

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

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