Are you a good pitch or a bad pitch?
Or are you not a pitch at all? That’s what you should be asking your query letter. In my opinion, a good query letter starts with a gripping first line that forces the agent to drop everything they’re doing, call you up and beg to represent you. This line is otherwise known as the pitch. Your pitch should summarize the unique and engaging concept of your story in one sentence.
There are many websites you can go to for a detailed list of do’s and don’ts. But I’ve decided to teach by example and show you my actual query letters. The good, the bad, and the one that got me an agent.
If you’ve read my other posts, you know that I am an agented author even though I haven’t been picked up by a publisher yet. Getting an agent was a long and arduous road. I got lost a lot of the time and made some pretty amateur mistakes. It took me almost two years of querying before I snagged an agent. And I think I figured out why it took me so long.
1. I was pitching the wrong book.
It was the first book I had ever written. It was a great accomplishment. I still love the book, but it wasn’t strong enough to hook that illusive agent. While querying for this book, I wrote another one and realized I finally had a winner. So, I started querying for the new book instead. Several months later, I still hadn’t found success. Here’s why:
2. My query sucked.
This was my original query for The Bitch Brigade of Bridgeton:
My name is Sybil Nelson and I am seeking representation for my Young Adult novel, THE ……. complete at 53,000 words. The sequel, THE ……, is complete at 58,000 and I am currently working on the third book in the series. Just a side note, I’m completely willing to change the title. I’m not a fan of profanity, but I’ve let some of my students read the book and they think it’s an “awesome” title.
As a high school teacher, I often read books that are suggested to me by my students. As an African American, I have found that most of the books my students find interesting lack well-developed black female characters. The Bitch Brigade of Bridgeton fills this void by providing, not one but, two black female leading characters placed in situations familiar to young adult readers.
In The ….., my protagonist and her sister, Sasha make a pact at the tender age of 8 to somehow escape the poverty stricken Venton Heights housing development into which they have been thrust. In high school, they both get accepted to the elite and prestigious Bridgeton Academy on scholarships. When the protagonist goes from social obscurity to social spotlight by dating the star of the basketball team, the three most ruthless, conniving, and vindictive seniors (affectionately called the Bitch Brigade) take note and seek to bring her down a peg or two.
I graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2001 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Math and Music. I used to love to write, but when I got to college I got discouraged in my abilities and began to focus more on my other talents. I never lost my love of words, however, and I continued to read voraciously. Over the years, my tastes in leisure reading have ranged from V.C. Andrews to Michael Crichton to Tom Wolfe to Thomas Hardy to Alexander McCall Smith. I just love a good story.
I don’t have a riveting authorial background lavished with writing credits. I’m just a high school math teacher and failed former English major that wants to tell stories and hopefully make a little money doing it. As an amateur author who respects your organization, I would love to have your honest opinion about my writing even if you decide not to represent me.
(Note: The font is just for blog purposes. You probably want to stick with Times New Roman or Arial for your actual letter.)
Now there are a lot of good things about that query, but after a few years of experience, I now know where I went wrong. First of all, I have a lot of information in there that people just don’t care about. In the first sentence, I say I’m seeking representation. Well, duh? Why else would I be writing a literary agent? It’s not needed. Then I talk about changing the title. Now that’s putting the cart before the horse. I’d have to get a publishing contract before I even start thinking about a possible title. In the second paragraph I start talking about what motivated me to write the book. Who cares? In the end, I don’t think a publisher is going to publish a book because someone had great intentions when they wrote it. The next paragraph starts my summary, which should have come earlier. Also, the summary isn’t a good representation of the book. Next I talk about what books I like to read. Again, who cares? What I read has nothing to do with how I write. There are so many bad things about that query that I can’t go into any more detail as this article would probably end up being ten pages long.
Six months and five revisions later, I came up with a much better query.
When a shy, black, ballerina from a poor neighborhood is thrust into the affluent yet equally dangerous world of the prestigious Bridgeton academy, she is forced to overcome her insecurities in order to defeat the three most ruthless and vindictive girls in the school.
My YA novel, THE …., is MEAN GIRLS meets CENTER STAGE with a multicultural spin. It is a heartwarming and humorous tale of how race, class, and education affect the self-esteem and character of a black teenager whose only dream is to become a world famous dancer. With a love of classical music and ballet, she has never fit in at home in the housing project of Venton Heights and her skin color prevents her from being completely accepted at Bridgeton. But when a star white basketball player falls for her, she enters the unfamiliar realm of popularity and finally begins to feel like she belongs. This newfound social status comes with a price, however, as she becomes the target of The Bitch Brigade. Her true character and resolve are revealed when she stands up to their efforts to humiliate and degrade her.
THE …. is complete at 62,000 words. The sequel THE DEVIL OF DIRISIO is complete at 60,000 words and I am currently working on the third and final book in the series. All three books focus on the interactions of teenagers in elite private schools. As a teacher in such schools for the past six years, I feel I can give a unique perspective on their social hierarchy. While in high school myself, I won a journalism scholarship to Washington and Lee University and wrote for the school newspaper.
Thank you for taking the time to read my letter. I would be happy to send you the complete manuscript to review if you are interested. I look forward to hearing from you.
Notice how this query is much shorter. It gets right to the point and attempts to hook the reader with an enticing summary sentence. That first sentence is my pitch. Then I talk about what the book is about, who would want to read it, and why I was able to write it.
Is it a perfect letter? Probably not, but hey it worked for me. When I wrote this last incarnation of query letter, I felt like the proverbial light bulb went off in my head. I finally understood what a pitch was supposed to do and how it should be used in a query letter. I played with the right wording for days. This was another idea I had for the pitch:
“Must I act black to be black? How do you act ‘black’ anyway?” These were questions Sonya faced daily leaving a New Jersey housing project to attend a private school full of privileged white kids. The answers were sometimes humorous, occasionally painful, and often nonexistent.
I decided to go with the other one because it really did condense the story into one sentence.
So, basically, go back to the pitch. Is your prospective agent going to be able to catch your drift or will it be a swing in and a miss?