Whenever you tell people you’re writing or have written a novel, they are (usually) instantly impressed. But if you’ve written or are writing a novel, then you know: Writing the novel was the easy part. Writing your query letter and crafting your pitch are infinitely more daunting tasks. The truly impressive achievement would be boiling your novel down to its core, to explain its marketability, significance, and plot in roughly one page–and so effectively that an agent, who has thousands of writers clamoring for his attention, decides he wants to devote it to you and your work. Because I truly do find writing a one-page query letter and delivering a 60- to 90-second pitch much more difficult than writing and revising a 110,000-word novel, I recently attended an Agile Writers of Richmond event called Beyond Agile Writers: The Elevator Pitch with Shanelle Calvin. Below are my takeaways.
Query Letters and Pitches: The Dos
- Know your audience. Research the agent(s) you plan to address. Know the genres they prefer to read, know their basic background information. One concept Ms. Calvin reiterated was that if you want agents to invest in you, you have to show you are willing to invest–and have invested–in them. (See “Don’t #1”)
- Be authentic. Your tone, whether during a pitch or within a query letter, should be the tone of the novel and the tone of your brand. Make sure this tone is consistent on your social media platforms, as well.
- Show, don’t tell. Through social media followings, reviews of your work, author recommendations, the tone of your letter and/or pitch, and strong verbs, prove your book is marketable.
- Be clear and specific. If you are sending a query letter via e-mail, make sure that both the e-mail’s subject line and the body of the e-mail clearly communicate that the purpose of your message is to query. Including the word “query” in your subject line is advisable.
- Follow the directions. Every agent to whom you send work will have different requirements. Some will request the first ten pages of the manuscript to be e-mailed with the query in an attachment. Others might instruct you to send the first twenty pages of the manuscript in the body of the e-mail, below the query. Make sure you carefully review what each individual agent requires, and follow those directions scrupulously.
- Provide a comparison. If you believe your work resembles the works of a well-known author, point out the similarity. For example, you might say something like, “In a novel comparable to the works of Mitch Albom…,” or “In a piece reminiscent of Fried Green Tomatoes…,” or “In the spirit of works such as…” (See Don’t #2)
- Be visible and present. On social media that is. You want agents to be able to find you. Whether you use LinkedIn, Facebook, Snapchat, Periscope; whether you maintain a blog or a website or both; it is important that agents can find you, as well as any works you may already have published. If you do maintain a blog or a website, directing an agent to it in your query can be helpful, provided it is relevant to the work you are pitching. (See Don’t #6)
- Dress the part. If you have a meeting or an appointment at a conference to pitch your novel, present yourself professionally. While wearing a suit and tie may not be consistent with your brand, and such a formal outfit may not be necessary, it is important to dress in a respectful, appropriate manner that will leave a positive impression. (See Don’t #7)
- Compel a response with a call to action. Make sure to end your pitch or query letter with a call to action. If the agent does not request a portion of the manuscript to be sent in with the query, for example, you might close with, “May I send you the first chapter of my manuscript?” If the agent’s query requirements already request a sample from the manuscript, you might close with something like, “I hope you will provide some feedback on my work.” Alternatively, you could close with questions you have for the agent. Anything that begs a response is helpful in maintaining the communication, and in letting an agent know what your ideal next steps would be.
- Include credentials. If you are a member of writing clubs or organizations, let agents know. If you have other work published, let agents know. If you have a degree in creative writing or have received a fellowship or other honors, let agents know.
- Include the conflict. Make sure the query or pitch clearly communicates your protagonists’ desire, as well as the obstacles to achieving that desire.
- Include statistics. Be sure to (accurately!) include the genre, target audience, and word count of your novel.
Query Letters and Pitches: The Don’ts
- Send a form letter, or send the exact same letter to multiple agents. Too often, this can result in errors fatal to your novels’ chances at publication. For example, you might remember to change the recipient’s name in the salutation of the letter, but forget that you mentioned names later in the query. Where you refer to the agent by his correct name in your greeting, later you address him as a woman–another agent to whom you sent the same query.
- Make outlandish and pompous claims and comparisons. While it may be acceptable to compare your work or your writing style to those of well-known authors (providing you are accurate), it is unwise (if not entirely delusional) to declare something like, “I am the next John Steinbeck” or “My book is a bestseller.”
- Be impatient. Most agents will give you a timeline during which you can expect to hear back from them, such as within 6-8 weeks. Let the amount of time they ask for elapse before you follow up.
- Be careless. Spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and poor grammar do not bode well for someone claiming to have written a marketable novel.
- Be long-winded. The art of both the pitch and the query lies in brevity (which is why I have not yet mastered either). You do not want to give too much away by including every detail, nor do you want to run over your allotted time during an appointment or meeting, or compose too lengthy a query letter. Any of these errors can make you seem unprepared, disorganized, and inconsiderate.
- Include links to irrelevant social media. While making an agent aware of your blog or website if it is consistent with your brand or pertinent to the subject matter of your work is helpful, directing them to your personal Facebook profile where you post mainly pictures of your dog is probably not helpful (unless, of course, you are pitching a book about dogs, or veterinary science, or some similar subject).
- Wear jeans and a T-shirt to pitch your novel. Even if your brand is casual, you want to avoid coming off as careless, sloppy, or amateur. If you want to remain consistent with a casual brand, think business casual: khakis and a polo with boat shoes, perhaps, for men.
Now, all that said, I am off to find out if I can practice what I preach by attempting to condense my nearly 110,000-word novel into a one-page query letter! I wish you happy writing (which should be easy) and happy querying (if that isn’t an oxymoron).