Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Writer's Workshop: Perfect Pitch Part 2. The One Line and Query Letter

Now that you’ve rocked the synopsis (see part 1), you’re ready to tackle further reduction of your work in the form of the one line hook, also known as the elevator pitch.

A pitch line must include four components: Main charactermain opponentmain problemmain action.
Here are some pitch lines from well-know works in various genres:

The largest think tank in the world is behind a series of mysterious deaths, and the young widows of two of the victims must stop them.” Are You Afraid of the Dark? By Sydney Sheldon

“When a grizzled war veteran dies on his 83rd birthday, he finds himself in heaven, where the five people who mattered most to him explain the meaning of life.”
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

“A group of strangers, isolated in the Greek village of Agia Anna, must confront everything they have run away from when an explosion on a local tourist boat rocks their world.” Nights of Rain and Stars by Maeve Binchy

“In nineteenth century England, a partnership between two brilliant conjurers is threatened when one heedlessly pursues the shadowy magic of the Raven King.” Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

A few things to note in these examples:

·      Each pitch is a single sentence.
·      The order in which the four components appear is flexible and flows with the plot.
·      The definition “main character, main opponent” isn’t necessarily a single person. Sheldon’s and Clarke’s books are “buddy stories” inside of other genres and therefore there are two main characters. Binchy’s novel is an ensemble story with multiple POVs.
·      Proper names aren’t important in the pitch line. Whenever possible, use a concise description of your main character and main opponent rather than using their names. (Unless, of course, your opponent’s name is Raven King. That just rocks.)

The query letter

            The query letter used to be called the cover letter back in the days of Moses when people used snail mail to connect with agents. Today, most prefer e-mail, which has led to writers getting sloppy and shooting off less than professional query letters. Tsk.
            All correspondence with an agent/editor/publisher should be professional, short, error free, short, complete, and did I mention short?
            General rules:
·      Always address a specific agent at the agency. Sending out a query that begins “Dear Agent” will end with your query in the “Dear Deleted” file.
·      Always read up on the agency, and every agent you query. Ensure you send an email that includes exactly what they are looking for in a query (e.g. query letter only, query letter and first five pages, or query letter, synopsis and first fifty pages.) Not all agents want to see a synopsis with a query.
·      Never attach a file to a query. All material should be pasted into the body of your email. If the agent’s website tells you to query with a letter, synopsis, and first five pages, you paste all of that (in that order) in the body of the email you send.
·      Address the agent using his or her surname. Dear Ms. Superduper. Dear Mr. Smartguy.
·      Include the date of your query at the top of the page.
·      In the subject line of your email query (this is important!) you must tell the agent what the email is about. It should read like this: “Query—Agent Name—TITLE OF NOVEL by Author Name”
The letter itself should be around five (short) paragraphs. Here’s a template you can use to help craft your query letter. (This is just an example—be creative, use great nouns and verbs, express yourself clearly, creatively, and most of all use the letter to demonstrate your ability to be professional while maintaining your wild creativity.)
·      Opening: If you have a referral from someone, mention it first. This places you on the ground of the agent’s mind and not just floating in the ether of the slush pile. If not, simply thank the agent for the opportunity to query him/her. Then, hit them with the genre, title, and word count of your novel, followed by the pitch line.
·      Second paragraph encapsulates the main action of the plot, but doesn’t necessarily include the outcome (the synopsis includes how the book ends).
·      The third paragraph is about you, your credentials, why you chose to query that agent, your platform (if you have one).
·      Fourth paragraph is your contact info, and sign off.

Example letter:

August 28, 2013

Dear Ms. Agent,

         PARAGRAPH ONE GREETING AND PITCH LINE:  Thank you for the opportunity to query regarding my GENRE-SPECIFIC novel, TITLE, the story of MAIN CHARACTER, a woman trapped in a dull, meaningless existence until she finds a talking pickle on the streets of Chicago, which grants her three wishes.
             PARAGRAPH TWO, OUTLINE OF MAIN PLOT: Pick up from the pitch line, expound on the main problem, and rising tension.

            PARAGRAPH THREE, CONTINUE OUTLINE OF PLOT: Rising tension, things look hopeless, what will our hero do?

                NOVEL TITLE is a modern fairy tale set in Chicago. It is a layered, quirky novel like Comparable Title, blended with the surprise and adult humor of Second Comparable Title.
               The novel was birthed out of my lifelong love of fairy tales, married to the memories of the summer I spent in Chicago working at a Kosher Deli. I make my home in the hills of Montana. LIST OF YOUR PAST PUBLICATIONS IF ANY, INCLUDING ROUGH SALES NUMBERS IF POSSIBLE, AND ANY AWARDS. THEN, YOUR PLATFORM: I blog regularly at, which is linked to my popular Facebook page with 1,000,000 fans and growing daily. I have a huge Twitter following, and a professional website.         

            PARAGRAPH FIVE: Thank you for considering this query. (OR Thank you for considering this query and the first five pages below. OR whatever the agent website specifically asks for.)
             My email is: 
              This is a simultaneous submission. (If it is)
          I look forward to hearing from you.

            Yours truly,
            Hopeful Writer

Never email later asking if the agent will respond. Some agents have an automatic response emails that let you know the agency received your query. Most don’t. That’s too bad, but there’s nothing to be done. If you don’t hear back within a reasonable amount of time 3-8 weeks, move on.

There are a few agencies out there that ask for exclusive submission. If you go after one of those, be honest and wait out the exclusive submission, don’t send the query out to other agents.

Lots here, I know. Hit me with any questions you have regarding synopsis, pitch, and query letter. I’ll do my best to answer, and I’ll also rely on the collective wisdom of the Novel Matters writers, and readers.

Batter up! 


Patti Hill said...

What I must add to this is that you know what you're talking about. Agents respond to you and your queries. Thanks for sharing, Bonnie!

Sally Bradley said...

How would the query letter change as a cover letter if you're sending requested materials?

Camille Eide said...

Thank you, Bonnie. I've heard many tips on writing the one liner, but I don't think I've seen it broken down this way. Now...I've tried it with my current wip and have a problem: My heroine has two problems to solve: one is internal, one external.

"A WWII widow, working for hire to write a Hollywood memoir, finds herself under suspicion of Communist activity by McCarthy's best agent and must prove her innocence before she and the actor she secretly loves become the next Julius and Ethel Rosenberg."

I tried to consolidate them both here but I'm afraid I am losing the inner battle in her heart, the love story, which is central to this book. It's not suspense with some romance on the side, but vice versa.

Any thoughts? Thank you, Bonnie!

Bonnie Grove said...

Patti: Mwah!

Sally: Great question. Requested materials letters are brief and usually don't include any pitch line, or plot summary, because if the agent has requested material, she already knows this information. There are exceptions, though.

Here are a couple of scenarios:

If you've met the agent at a conference and she has requested you send her a proposal, this qualifies as requested material, but you need to include all proposal elements she's asked for as well as a great query letter.

the subject line of your email should read:

Requested Materials--Agent Name--Name of Novel, by Author Name

Then, structure your letter much the same as the query I've exampled in this post, but begin with:

Dear Ms. Agent,

I enjoyed meeting with you at the Specific Writer's Conference, and appreciate the opportunity to send you the proposal for my GENRE novel as you requested.


If the agent has already seen the proposal, or leaps over this step (it happens) and requests the full ms you send a very short email:

The subject line of your email should read:

Requested Materials--Agent Name--Name of Novel, by Author Name


Dear Agent,

Thank you for the opportunity to send you the full manuscript of TITLE.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours truly,
Hopeful Writer

It may seem redundant to include the agent's name in the requested materials letter, but, unless you know it's a boutique agency and the email will end up on that agent's iPhone, include the name. Large agencies have many agents, and you don't want your manuscript to cause questions.

Jennifer Major said...

Bonnie, you are an EXCELLENT mentor for these things! I know this for a fact!!
Thankyouthankyouthankyou for this!!
It's goin' in the bookmark file! Which, I guess, is the computer version of "on the fridge".

Susie Finkbeiner said...

You timed this perfectly, Bonnie. All of us gearing up for ACFW should pull together our pennies and send you a big, huge chocolate bar (fair trade, of course).

Thank you.

Bonnie Grove said...

Jennifer: You're most welcome. Thanks for the kudos.

Susie: I like the way you think.

Cherry Odelberg said...

So much good material.
So little memory space.
Good thing there are bookmarks.

Camille Eide said...

Oddly, my comment this morning showed up, then disappeared. I'm writing a one-liner about that. Next time.

Bonnie, I've heard lots of great teaching on honing those one-liners, but haven't seen it done exactly this way. This makes great sense, and is so....scientific. Love it. So I tried it with my current wip:

"A WWII widow, working for hire to write a Hollywood memoir, finds herself under suspicion of Communist activity by McCarthy's eager new agent and must prove her innocence before she and the actor she secretly loves become the next Julius and Ethel Rosenberg."

What's tough for me here is that the MC has 2 conflicts going on---the internal heart issue and the external drama. The trouble with this one-line (below) is that it makes the story sound more like a suspense than a love story, but in fact, it's stronger on the love and lighter on the suspense. BUT...the era and all that stuff is still key (to help show this is 1953), don't you think? Any thoughts?

Bonnie Grove said...

Cherry: Bookmarks are our friends.

Camille: Kudos on this pitch line. I can't quite get the flavor of the novel from the pitch. Is it genre? Non-genre? Can you infuse it with the voice of the novel? For example, if it were a romp of a novel it might read:

A writer-for-hire in 1950's Hollywood trades in her high-heels for gumshoes in order to clear her name off McCarthy's hit list, while trying not to fall too hard for an actor who's too busy getting in trouble to notice her.

Words like "writer-for-hire", "high-heels" and "gumshoes" offer a flavor of the era, setting, and genre (which may not fit with the actual feel of your book--just an example), and the lines "tring not to fall too hard", and "too busy to notice her" makes us like her and helps us identify with her.

Make sense?

Camille Eide said...

Thanks, Bonnie. I love the flavor you gave this. Unfortunately, it's not a match (probably would be a great book!). Will keep at it with voice infusion in mind. Thank you!