After reading my Pitch to Publication submissions, I put together this video detailing query letter basics and giving advice gleaned from my submissions.
Below you'll find a breakdown of the video's main points and a transcript!
Hey everyone! Today is Friday, October 28. I know you’re all excited about Monday because it’s Halloween, of course. But more importantly, it is the announcement of the author-editor teams for Pitch to Publication. If you submitted to me, I will still be providing feedback. But I just wanted to take a moment to talk about the elephant in the room: query letters.
So while I was reading Pitch to Publication submissions, I saw a lot of the same “flaws” in query letters, and by “flaws” I mean anything that made me stop reading. Your query letter has one job, and that is to make the agent want more.
Query Letter Basics
Okay, so let's start with some basics. Your query letter is a one-page letter. You get one page to sell the agent on your manuscript and on yourself—to convince them that this is the best project they could possibly work with, that out of the piles and piles of pitches they have in their slush, this is the one they want. Remember, it is a letter. It needs to be in letter format with a salutation and closing.
When it comes to the intro, you want to personalize it. Make sure it doesn't sound like a mass email, but more than that you want to show the agent that you have done your homework. Show them why you think this is the right project for them and they are the right agent for you because it's a two-way street. Now, this doesn't mean that you need to prove to the agent that you’ve Internet-stalked them—although, let's be honest, most of us do. Just make it personal. Just make it unique and keep it brief. This is also a good place to include your genre and word count. Do not leave that out. I noticed a lot of that with Pitch to Publication. When you're looking for something specific, whether it's genre or audience, you want to make sure that it's easy to find. Don't make the agent go hunting for that basic information. The intro is also a good place to include comp titles. Comps can be very effective. They can really strengthen your query if they are used well. Now of course comps are only effective if the agent has read or seen the comp title so you want to use something that's fairly mainstream. But if you are saying that your manuscript is Stephen King meets JK Rowling, that's not really going to do much good, and the agents just going to glaze over it and probably give you a little eye roll. You want to use something that is truly similar to your manuscript without being too obscure. Just like the rest of the query letter, the purpose of comp titles is to get the agent excited. So just ask yourself if the comps that you are choosing will do that.
After the introduction you have the hook. This is one maybe two sentences to snag the agent’s attention. This is where you want them to really start getting excited. You are introducing the most interesting part of your manuscript int his one sentence. Be careful that you don't get too general with the hook. Don't say something like One hero must defeat the ultimate evil. Stay away from any kind of generalization. The hook is where you want to emphasize that your manuscript is different, that there's something very unique about it. And giving those sorts of generalizations detracts from that.
After you have hooked the agent, that's when you go into the mini-synopsis. Regardless of how your manuscript’s written, your synopsis should be in third person, present tense. I'll say more about that in a minute.
After your synopsis, then you go into your bio. The main purpose of your bio is to establish credibility. Tell the agent why you are the person to write this book. Now, you can do that a few ways. Of course you want to list your publications. If you’ve published books previously, that's great. If you’ve published short stories. The agent probably doesn't care about the piece you wrote for your middle-school newspaper so make sure your publications are relevant. Really any creative publications are going to be something they’ll care about. Another way to establishing credibility is to link your bio to specific aspects of your manuscript. For instance, if I write something set in East Tennessee, I would mentioned that I have lived eighteen years in East Tennessee. If you're writing a political thriller, you may mention that you have a background in politics. If you're writing a children's book, you might mention that you have children. Any of these things can establish credibility. I’d stay away from saying things like This is my first book or I have no previous publications. Keep it positive. Remember that old advice: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. That sort of applies here. There's no need to point out negatives.
After the bio, you want to close with something respectful. Thank the agent for their time and then your contact information.
*Tip: Always follow guidelines!
The easiest and simplest thing you can do to make yourself seem professional is to follow the agent’s guidelines. Read their guidelines and follow them to the tee. Again, don't give the agent any reason to turn down your manuscript.
Tips from P2P16 Subs
A few things that I noticed while reading Pitch to Publication queries:
No Basic Info
I mentioned this before: no genre audience or word count. For this round Pitch to Publication, I was specifically looking for adult manuscripts, and when I couldn't find that information it was just something else to think about besides the manuscript, and that is absolutely what we're trying to avoid with query letters. The focus should be on your story. If the agent is thinking about anything else then that is distracting them from your story. So just put that information somewhere they can find it. The audience, whether it's MG, YA, or Adult, your word count and genre.
I also saw a lot of very overwhelming synopses. I was asked the question, How do you know how much information is too much to include in your mini-synopsis? Well, this is really simple. Give this synopsis to someone who has not read your manuscript and see if they can make heads or tails of it. I know it's very difficult when it's your work because you know the characters. You know them inside out. You know the plot so it all makes sense to you. But when you're reading something for the first time and you have five different character names and three different subplots in that little half-page synopsis, that gets overwhelming. And again it's distracting. So I would suggest picking out your focus characters and your main conflict and really focusing in on those. Decide what the strongest aspect of your manuscript is, and make sure that is what you are emphasizing in the synopsis. Also, I know I used the words “too much information” in regards to aspects of the query other than the synopsis. Perhaps too much biographical information If your bio is longer than your synopsis then that's a problem. The agent is interested in the story more than they are interested in you. Also if it's a series, pay attention to how much page space you are dedicating to the next books in the series if you are trying to sell the first one. You have one page, and you have to decide how to allot that space. So make sure that you are focusing on the most important aspects, the aspects that the agent will care about and the aspects that are going to sell your manuscript.
I also saw a lot of dry synopses, and by dry I mean that they did not reflect the personality and the voice of the manuscript. I know you're writing the synopsis in third person, present. That may or may not be how the manuscript is written, but you still want to emulate that voice to the best of your ability. Your mini-synopsis is not a point-by-point outline of your story. What you're attempting to do with the mini-synopsis is to deliver the essence of your story, and voice is a very big part of that. If you listen to the Pitch to Publication editors, you will hear the word voice come up over and over again. I've always said that readers come for the plot and stay for the characters. Your characters and their voices are the most interesting thing about your manuscript more often than not. So why would you not make sure that that comes through your mini-synopsis?
As I mentioned before, you have one page to get all of this information in so a good rule of thumb is if you can say it in fewer words, do. You don't want to have any excess words. Every single mark on that page should have a purpose. I'm not saying that your synopsis and your query needs to be bare-bones. By purpose, it could be to illuminate an aspect of voice or character. It could be to give a plot point, but this is where you need to make sure you are not sending a first draft because as you're going over this query letter, revising and editing, you will undoubtedly reduce it and perhaps build it back up. But if you build it back up, it will be stronger and tighter. You want that prose to be effective and to be useful. As I said, you only have one page so don't waste any of it.
Lack of Stakes
Another thing I saw in my submissions were query letters that did not set up the stakes. I mentioned that Pitch to Publication editors love the word voice. We also love the word stakes. We want to know what is the worst that can happen. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that death has to be involved. It doesn't mean the town needs to go up in flames. It just means that your character needs to want something, and there need to be consequences if they don't achieve their goal. As I'm reading a query letter, I don't want to feel like the character is just floating through life. Perhaps they're a very interesting character, perhaps in an interesting setting, but I don't get that feeling that something is at risk, that something is at stake. I need to know that if something goes wrong, somebody's going to pay for it. This can be physical; this can be emotional, which is perhaps the stronger of the two. Of course, your manuscript needs this, but you need to make sure it comes through in the query as well. I say we need to focus on the most interesting aspects of our story, and the stakes are often the most interesting part. This is why we are reading: to see if the character is going to get what they want or if they're not. And either way, there needs to be a consequence.
The last thing I saw in queries that you're probably going to want to avoid is a simple one: editorial comments. They’re just not necessary. Like your manuscript needs to speak for itself, your query needs to speak for itself. Don't tell me that your book is the best thing that anyone has ever read. Just don't editorialize. It doesn't come off as professional, and even if it's not boastful, it's not necessary. If you have done your job writing your query and your synopsis, then whatever comments that you would like to make are already going to come across without you saying them. So just leave that out and let the work speak for itself.
That is all I’ve got for now. Let me know if there any questions about query letters or mini-synopses that I did not answer. Just leave a comment below. Leave a comment if you participated in Pitch to Publication and you are so excited for Monday because I know I am. You guys did such an amazing job. You made our decisions really really difficult. So like, comment, subscribe—do all that stuff—and I will see you next time!
Author & Editor