One of the most helpful sessions I attended at The San Francisco Writers Conference was on how to create a platform for yourself. When I went into the session I thought the speakers were going to discuss social media, but I was wrong. Their focus was on selling yourself and your story.
The moderators did a lot of show and tell of specific situations where an agent or editor might come up to you and ask about your book. Most people fumbled and bumbled their way through the exercise without really pitching their story. The key word here being PITCH.
They told us your pitch should not be a quickly given query, or a lengthy diatribe about your personal history. It should be one to two sentences which encapsulates your story.
I know what you’re thinking.
How the heck do I sum up a 65, 75 or 90K novel in one sentence? It’s hard, but not impossible. Think about the one key element of your story and share that. Agents are looking for something “fresh” and you should focus on what makes your story unique.
Here is my pitch: Second-degree black belt Nica McDonald talks better with her fists than her mouth, so when the local bully is murdered, she becomes the prime suspect.
It took me two loong days to whittle my story down to this line, but it worked. It got people’s attention. Think about this for your own story. How would you grab an agent’s interest if you could only use one sentence?
The great thing about your pitch line is that you can also use it as the intro to your query – which I’ve done.
Now, your query is a whole different animal.
Here is what I learned from a quick ASK A PRO session with Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest:
Lead in paragraph
Include personalized greeting, reason for sending letter (i.e. seeking representation), and your novel info (specifically genre and word count). Agents want to see this upfront because they want to know right away if it’s something they rep (and it WILL BE because you’ve done your research before sending!).
Note on personalization: Take the time to use the agent’s name and spell it correctly. Can’t tell you how many times I heard agents say if the query was addressed to “Dear Agent,” or “Whom it may concern” it went straight in the trash.
This can be one of two things – it can be pitch/hook line or a brief bio statement. Personally, I go straight into pitch, but others say if you have a specific background that makes you uniquely qualified to write the book – add it here.
Meat of your story. Make it brief, but include what Agent Katharine Sands says is critical to the query: Person, Place and Pivot (character turning point).
Add your comps. These can either be books which have a similar framework, or a mash-up of a book and a movie like Jessica Khoury did for her book, ORIGIN, which she called a mix of Avatar meets Ally Condie’s MATCHED series.
There is a big debate about whether this is necessary, but many agents say if you can tell them where your book would go on the shelves at B&N it helps them better define whether or not they want to take it on. Comps may also help them sell the book later on to an editor.
Bio. If you don’t have any awards, publication credits, etc. leave this blank. There are many debut authors on the shelves who didn’t have a single publishing credit before they were signed by an agent.
Conclude with a thank you, your name and contact info. Make sure you add contact info. I’m saying this again because I recently watched an agent go crazy on Twitter because she couldn’t reach the author of a query she loved! Email and/or phone number are good.
I am the first one to lament how difficult this process is. I cannot even begin to tell you how many queries I’ve written (and am still toiling over). But hopefully these tips will streamline the process for you.
And just a quick disclaimer: this is not the end-all-be-all formula for doing a query. There are MANY successful writers out there who will argue that they didn’t follow any of these guidelines and still got an agent – and that’s true. I’m only sharing the knowledge given to me. As always, you must do what’s right for you, and your story, because only you can pitch it best!