The Writers Circle

TO MARKET, TO MARKET – Part One: The “Elevator Pitch” Query Letter

After six years as The Writers Circle, we’ve witnessed the birth of some amazing writing and worked with writers who’ve truly stretched and grown. We’ve cheered a great many on their publications—articles, essays, short stories, and poetry that were beautifully done and well received.  Now we’ve finally reached the moment when several full-length manuscripts are almost ready to tiptoe into the publishing arena.  It takes a very long time to polish any full-length work, especially when you’ve never written one before.

To celebrate these writers’ transition from process to product and from craft to business, we’re dedicating our next several blog posts to the agent search and submission process. It’s a gauntlet every writer must run if they want to place their work with a traditional publisher.  And while there are no guarantees, our hopes are that our writers will reap some fine rewards after their hard, patient labors.

THE “ELEVATOR PITCH” QUERY LETTER:
After hundreds of pages and thousands of words, it’s time to squeeze your entire novel, memoir or nonfiction book into a single, one-page letter.  You’re kidding, right?  No, unfortunately I’m not, because all an agent wants to know when you first contact them is 1) can this writer put a decent sentence together, and 2) is this something I am even interested in trying to sell.

There are several basic elements in a query letter:

The Greeting should be easy, right?  Not so fast.  You really don’t want to send a form letter to the agent of your dreams.  Agents want to know that you picked them for a reason and that you’ve done your research.

Obviously, the best greeting includes the mention of a friend or colleague who has actually recommended you.  I was introduced to my first agent by my friend and fellow author Stephanie Cowell, and to my second by one of my adult students who knew my current agent from school!

But if you’re not yet blessed with such generous connections, do your research and find out who represents your favorite authors. Check the acknowledgements of their books or go to the author’s website. Focus specifically on writers who are similar to your project and writing style and the agents that represent them. This is also a good reason to attend writers conferences and events, so that you can say, “I met you at…!”

Fiction Genres

Book Basics.  Though many of us feel that the best audience for our work is “everyone!” – and we might even be right – an agent wants to know exactly where your book would sit on a bookstore shelf.  Genre does matter.  So does readership.  If your protagonist is a teen, it’s very likely – though not absolute – that you’re writing for the “YA” or young adult market.  If there’s a murder at the center of the plot or a quiet, intimate tale of a relationship gone wrong, say “murder mystery” or “literary fiction.”  (Yes, that’s a genre, too.)

Word count is also a factor.  Sure there are 1000 page books out there. (That would be about 250,000 words.) But if this is your first time out, it’s unwise to indulge.  I found a great post from Writers Digest that should give you a sense of whether to add or cut: Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post.

Nonfiction Genres

The Hook is perhaps the hardest thing to write.  It’s often called the “elevator pitch” because it should encompass everything about your book in about the time it takes to ride an elevator.  Some of the best examples I’ve found come from the film industry.  Peruse websites like IMDB, Netflix or just search Google and read the super-quick pitches for movies you’ve seen.  Here’s an example for the Oscar-nominated film, The Revenant:

A frontiersman on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team.

And The Martian:

During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Both films started as books, and I’m sure their authors wrote terrific elevator pitches.  But I like using film pitches for query examples.  Remember, these are written by the true pros of the marketing industry, because movies (unlike most books) actually make money!

Notice that both pitches take the following basic format:

[Character name + description] + [the conflict they’re going through] + [the choices they have to make]

(Thanks to Jane Friedman’s terrific post, detailed below, for the algebraic formulation.)

The key is to sum up all that’s great about your book in a clear, engaging frame without getting muddied with unnecessary details, subplots or characters.

Comps. We all dream of bestseller-dom, but it’s better to choose slightly more modest “comps” and show your prospective agent that you truly understand your book’s market. Look for books that have done well or are written by respected authors in your genre, but don’t shoot straight for the top of the list.  If you’ve written a dystopian Young Adult novel, don’t comp with The Hunger Games.  If there’s magic in your story, I wouldn’t advise mentioning Harry Potter.  If it’s a spooky mystery, sure we’d all love to be Stephen King, but there are a ton of other great writers who have also done well.  Show the agent that you’ve not only researched them, but read them.  If you look both broadly and deeply for comps that truly represent the realistic potential of your work, you’ll avoid looking like you’ve got your head in the clouds.

Your Bio. Hopefully you’ve spent the months and years before you write your query sending out short works for publication and racking up a few minor or major credits.  But if not, don’t worry.  Though it’s definitely not ideal, having no credentials doesn’t mean you’re completely out of the running.  Here’s some valuable advice from Jane Friedman’s terrific post, The Complete Guide to Query Letters That Get Manuscript Requests:

For novelists, especially unpublished ones, you don’t have to include a bio in your query if you can’t think of anything worth sharing. But it’s nice to put in something….

So, if you don’t have anything else, you might share some brief, relevant facts about your professional or personal life.  “Relevant” is the key word here.  Include only details that relate to the book you’re selling.  For example, if you’ve written a book for teens and you teach in a high school, that’s relevant because it shows you probably know your readership pretty well.  If you’ve written a book about cats and have a household of twenty-five, that might help, too. Still, should you mention that you’re unpublished in your query?  Friedman says, no.  Just leave it out.  “That point will be made clear by fact of omission.”

Obviously, the thank you and close should be brief and un-pushy.  Agents are busy.  Most won’t get back to you for weeks or more.  You can follow up about a month later with a very quick email, but don’t say in your query that you’re going to call them next week.  Trust me, they won’t answer!

Whatever order you approach these elements, put them all together and see if they sound and feel like you.  Ultimately, your query is the first writing sample the agent will read.  Make it efficient, effective and genuine.  To hook an agent, it’s got to be your best.

For some excellent examples of successful query letters, check out GalleyCat’s great post, 23 Literary Agent Query Letters That Worked.

If you’re working with us this session, feel free to try out your query letters in class.  And to all, good luck boiling it all down to a mere 400 words!

Want to learn more? Join us for “Conquering the Query Letter” with best-selling author Ellen Meister on Sunday, September 18, 2016. For full information and to register, visit www.writerscircleworkshops.com.