5 Reasons for “Quick Pass” on a Query Letter

0212cf6

Agents do inhale query letters. We get 1,000’s a year and go through them periodically; usually consuming them in batches of 20-100’s at a time. I try to read them once or twice a month.

Your query letter is my first encounter with you. It doesn’t have to be “perfect” (I mean that!), but it does have to convince me why I need to read your writing, get lost in your voice, and why this particular story matters more than the others.

Your query letter is the first opportunity to engage me and show me how you’re a storyteller no matter the medium. Storytellers can write a novel and explain it in a few paragraphs–they have to.

FIVE REASONS FOR A QUICK PASS:

  1. Novel that’s under 70k or over 110k. Storytellers know how long it takes to tell a story and a novel-length project requires a certain depth of story.
  2. Wordy descriptions that are better suited for a synopsis than a pitch. No need to show off. Use plain language that shows your voice and range.
  3. Inaccurate or wildly inflated comparative titles. You don’t have to use the title du jour or name every bestseller (I assure you, this doesn’t wow us); instead, pick comp titles that are successful but not ubiquitous.
  4. Lack of core conflict. If you can’t tell me what your book is actually ABOUT then we have a problem. Storytellers can distill because they start from the main question of the plot and work backwards.
  5. Picked the wrong agent. Information floats around the web and often gets attributed incorrectly. Always go back to an agent’s website or blog for the most accurate information.

Next time you’re crafting your query think about what agents need to know and why. From those 80,000 words, extract a hook that shows me you can tell a story in 350 words–or 350 pages. That’s your job.

Your query letter tells me what kind of storyteller you’re going to be and I want to work with writers who understand the difference between writing and storytelling. Anyone can write, but not everyone can be a true storyteller.

Advertisements

February 11th Webinar: “Find Success with Your Query Letter: Getting Beyond Form Letters”

New year, new webinar.

Sign up here today! It also includes a critique of your query letter!

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:

  • How to recognize patterns in rejection letters
  • When to rewrite your query and when to revise your manuscript
  • Why agents send form rejections and why they send personalized rejections-and what the difference is
  • Winning formulas for your premise, hook and query letter
  • Why your pitch should focus on plot, not theme
  • The truth about how agents process queries
  • How to think like an agent who is reading their slush pile

ABOUT THE WEBINAR

Writers are tired of all those rejection letters piling up in their inbox. Some writers are confused about what they mean and how to learn from them. Agents don’t love sending rejections; in fact, it’s agents’ least favorite part of the job. Agents send them for many reasons like writers not following guidelines or targeting the right agents, or perhaps an agent really does like a pitch, but they don’t love it. Everyone can see that’s a broad spectrum. So how do writers know where they fall into it? Believe it or not, those form rejections hold the secret to writers’ success-they just don’t know it yet.

This live webinar will change the way attendees think about the polite passes they get from agents. P.S. Literary VP and Senior Agent Carly Watters will teach writers how to deconstruct rejections, interpret unknown patterns, provide attendees with winning pitching formulas, and empower writers to find their success within the querying system.

Agents actually love the slush pile because it’s where they find most of their debut clients. Carly will show attendees how to stand out in the slush pile and reduce the number of rejections received through simple and straightforward techniques they’ll wish they had before they began submitting. Carly has proudly found 95% of her fiction authors in the slush pile and she’ll share the patterns of success that helped land those writers with her.

It’s never too late to have a winning writing career. Those rejections aren’t the end. All it takes is one yes. And Carly will help you get closer to yes.

Here’s the link again. The webinar is Thursday Feb 11. Hope to see you there!

Which pitch has the most potential? Slush pile, in-person or online contest?

I get asked this question often. Writers want to make the most of their time and talent. Querying is a part in your writing career that is fraught with stress, expectation, and worry–oh wait, this sounds like the entire length of a writing career! Jokes aside, the decisions you make to start your career have a huge influence on the trajectory of it.

So what’s the best way to pitch an industry professional? In person at a conference? In the slush pile? Or in an online contest? 

All of these have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s go over them.

Pitching At A Conference In Person

Advantage: We get to know a slice of your personality (even if it’s only for 10 minutes) and whether we could see ourselves working together. Establishing a personal connection is beneficial for both parties.

Disadvantage: We haven’t seen your material yet! It all depends on the writing. So even if we get along well there is absolutely no guarantee anything will come of it. And if you’re nervous in those 10 minutes we might not get to see the best version of your presentation.

Slush Pile Pitching

Advantage: You can passionately explain why you think an agent is the right fit. You can get lots of advice on how to write the perfect query letter. This targeting is one of the most effective ways of hooking an agent who is right for you. I find more clients in the slush pile than anywhere else. I’d say it’s a 10:1 ratio. For every 10 clients I sign up 10 are from the slush, 1 is from elsewhere.

Disadvantage: Agents get hundreds to thousands of emails a month and you only get one chance to impress them.

Blog Contest Pitching

Advantage: You know you have 3-10 agents actively looking at your material, depending on the contest. There are many success stories floating around from these selective types of events.

Disadvantage: There might be a few agents interested, but often the speed of which the interested agent offers puts off the other agents because we don’t always have time to drop everything and read. Sometimes this speed works out in people’s favor and sometimes it doesn’t. Competition is definitely healthy, but writers have to make a tough decision without the hoopla getting in the way.

Twitter Contest Pitching

Advantage: It happens a few times a year and agents looking to build their list are actively observing it. Plus it makes you practice how to pitch and write a hook in one sentence.

Disadvantage: Agents want to work with authors who select agents for a reason. Writers pitch blindly on Twitter and sometimes the agent that wants to offer rep isn’t on that author’s “top agents” list and there can be bad blood and also a waste of time for everyone when querying would have been a must more beneficial use of time for both parties.

Q: Do you have a success story from one of these methods? (Or, more unfortunately, a horror story?)

Crafting a Novel’s Pitch: 7 Tips + GIVEAWAY – Guest Post by Chuck Sambuchino

_ Chuck[September 2015 saw the release of three of Chuck’s new books, the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents, the 2016 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and his anti-clown humor book When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide. Chuck will pick a commenter of this post at random as winners after 2 weeks, and those winners can receive their choice of any of his books. Must live within US/Canada to receive a print book. Otherwise, he can send a PDF ebook. Beware clowns.]

Crafting a Novel’s Pitch: 7 Tips by Chuck Sambuchino 

If you’re writing a novel or memoir, the most important part of the query letter is the pitch—a brief basic description of your story designed to pique the agent’s interest. This will be the longest and most difficult section to compose. It’s tough to boil down an entire book into a few condensed paragraphs, but here are 7 tips for how to lay out a compelling pitch that draws an agent or editor in.

1. Control your length. Pitches are 3-10 sentences, and most run 6-9. Concise is a very good thing. If you write more than ten sentences, your letter runs the risk of going over one page and also simply rambling.

2. Do not reveal the ending. If, when describing my latest novel, I told you that the good guy wins in the end, but his wife dies when failing to disarm a bomb at the end … would you still want to read the book? Probably not. A query pitch reads like back cover copy from a novel or DVD in that you don’t explain how the story ends, but rather retain intrigue and suspense.

3. On that note, look at DVDs and novels to see sample pitch text all around you. If you’re having trouble putting together a pitch, visit your nearest Barnes & Nobles or Target or any other place that sells both books and movies. Pick up both films and books in your genre (e.g., children’s stories, Christian fiction, thrillers, etc.) and start reading the boxes, back covers, and jackets. Those are all pitch examples for you to study and emulate. See what grabs your attention.

4. Be specific and avoid generalities. Specific elements bring a pitch to life and generalities drag it down. Don’t say, “The couple goes through many highs and lows.” Explain what that means, specifically, even if you’re just touching upon a bigger picture. “Avoid vagueness,” says literary agent Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary. “I get so many queries every day that don’t tell me enough about the novel. If there’s no reason for me to say yes, then it’s going to be no.” Being specific paints pictures in the mind of the reader. If I tell you that my main character “just quit his job,” does that create an image in your mind? Probably not. But how about if I told you, “After making his hundredth Big Mac this weekend, 17-year-old Rodney Morrison makes a spontaneous decision to quit his job in style—by launching a cupful of special sauce out the drive-through window at a rude customer before walking out the front door with his middle fingers high in the air.” Now, does that paint a picture in your mind? Yes.

5. Aim to elicit emotion. The style and voice of the pitch itself should reflect the content of the book. Don’t say, “My novel is a humorous romp with quirky characters.” The agent is giving you 3-10 sentences to make her laugh. Can you do that? Don’t say, “My novel is full of suspenseful twists and turns.” Rather than talk about your novel from a distance, the agent is giving you 3-10 sentences to put a chill down her spine. If you’re writing light, humorous women’s fiction, then there should be some laughs in the query letter. If you’re writing a dark horror novel, then there should be some spooky elements. Imagine you read a line like “But as Candace continues to explore the world of erotic asphyxiation, she becomes addicted to the feeling and even begins to choke herself in bathroom stalls on lunch breaks just to experience the sensation.” Such a line hits you, and can make you feel repulsed, or intrigued, or engaged. It triggers your emotions. If you can appeal to an agent’s emotions, she’s much more inclined to request more material—because you’ve shown her that your writing connects to readers, rather than just told her (anyone can do that).

6. Beware subplots and unnecessary details. Pitches often go too long, because they’re bogged down with superfluous elements. A simple way to avoid this is to cut out the small stuff: leave plot elements, setting description, and proper nouns on the cutting room floor. For example, look at these two potential beginnings of a pitch:

Version 1: Zalisa is a teenage elven princess who lives on a jungle planet. Despite her desire to live a common life welding swords, she is repeatedly told by her parents about her destiny to become queen and bring peace between warring tribes as their supreme leader. (Word count: 46; two sentences.)

Version 2: Zalisa, part of the chosen Y’Ri noble elves, lives with the Sha’NaRee tribe on the jungle planet of Usulurah. Adorned with long hair down to her waist and many tattoos she’s designed herself, all Zalisa wants is a life among the commoners doing what she loves best: sword making. She has quietly developed an amazing knack for intricate blade making, and trained with the highest levels of metalworkers and smiths in her province of Va’Quenay. The only problem is that her parents, E’Leepha and Can-Yur, expect their daughter to refrain from frolicking among the commoners, but instead fulfill the destiny of Tritonalt, a great prophecy widely known to all citizens of Usulurah. According to Tritonalt, Zalisa is the chosen royal descendent who will ascend to the throne as part of a divine prediction foretold by the ancient elven wise men at the 7 Cycles of Wisdom gathering eons ago when all the system’s planets were in line with the sun. Once she has ascended to the throne, it is foretold that Zalisa will quell the constant warfare that has hampered the planet, and finally bring peace to the land. (Word count: 186; six sentences.)

The second intro is chock-full of stuff we don’t need to know right now: the proper names of things (such as the planet name), her exact appearance outside of being an elf (i.e., the tattoos), and the backstory about how the prophecy came to be (the gathering). The second version has already used up most of the query page—six pitch sentences, out of a maximum ten—and there’s no discussion of what happens throughout the meat of the plot, what challenges Zalisa faces, or what she sets off to do to stop said challenges.

7. Practice, and have different versions if need be. Tell your pitch to others or get your query formally critiqued by a professional or peers. If you can’t decide between two versions of a pitch, you can always try out both and keep tabs on which agents get which versions. If one is garnering a better response rate than the other, you have your answer concerning how best to move forward.

GIVEAWAY TIME!

September 2015 saw the release of three of Chuck’s new books, the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents, the 2016 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and his anti-clown humor book When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide. Chuck will pick a commenter of this post at random as winners after 2 weeks, and those winners can receive their choice of any of his books. Must live within US/Canada to receive a print book. Otherwise, he can send a PDF ebook. Beware clowns.

three covers

**

Chuck Sambuchino (@chucksambuchino) of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. His latest humor book, WHEN CLOWNS ATTACK: A SURVIVAL GUIDE (Sept. 29 2015), will protect people everywhere from malicious bozos and jokers who haunt our lives. His books have been mentioned in Reader’s Digest, USA Today, the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Variety, New York Magazine, and more.