PITCHING TO AN AGENT – PART 1 – THE PITCH LETTER (QUERY LETTER)
NOTE: It’s conference time. In support of the Las Vegas Writer’s conference, I’m reposting an updated series of articles I posted last year that might be helpful to those of you considering going to this or any other writer’s conference.
Probably one of the hardest things an author has to write is the pitch letter. I’m reminded of the teen who doesn’t want to finish high school and comes up with the excuse, “Well Axl Rose of Guns N Roses never graduated, and look at him. He’s a big rock star millionaire.” Well, there’s ambition and dumb luck. He could just as easily have failed and never would’ve had anything to back himself up with. Mr. William Rose Jr. (his real name) might be the guy cleaning your pool while you’re making the big bucks because you went on to get a degree. Why I bring this up is that some authors think their story is so hot they won’t need to sell it. Agents will be knocking their door down to buy it from them. A pitch letter, or trying to pitch their story isn’t on their radar. They can skip the hard work because their story is so hot, luck (agents and publishers) will seek them out.
THE REAL WORLD
Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often in the real world. The funny thing is that I actually did see it happen once at the very first writer’s conference I attended in 2005. There was this teenage kid pitching a story he hadn’t even completed. He didn’t have a proper query letter or even any writing samples, as I recall. Yet when he pitched his idea to one of the young adult agents, she signed him on the spot. To this day, I don’t know if anything ever came of that kid or his book (if he ever completed it), but it was one of those magic Axl Rose type moments where lightning strikes. I was there to witness it.
Do you think it’ll happen to you? Fat chance! You, my friend, are going to have to work for it like the rest of us, if the numbers bear out. So, suck it up and start listening (or reading, if you want to get technical).
NUTS AND BOLTS
The pitch letter, or as it’s more widely known, the query letter, is your way of getting the attention of an agent or publisher. It’s a way of tapping them on the shoulder and saying “Hey, I’ve got something to show you.”
Agents and publishers get literally hundreds, if not thousands of these letters per day/week/month. They’re always looking for the next best thing, something they can sell and from which they can make a ton of money. At the same time, they have to slog through all this crap. To get their attention, you need to be brief, to the point, no bull. Or as Jack Webb used to say in Dragnet, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
TO THE POINT – FAST
It’s critical you keep to the point and be concise in a query letter. You’ve got just a few quick lines to blow their socks off, to pique their interest, to leave them wanting for more. By the time that agent or publisher reaches the end of that letter, they should know the story is a good fit for their agency, they should see that you have the chops to pull it off, and are intrigued by the premise, or pitch line. If you can do those three things, I can almost guarantee they’ll be asking for more.
FICTION VERSUS NON-FICTION
I need to tell you up front that this discussion is tailored to pitching fiction and not non-fiction. When it comes to queries, they’re two different animals. I’ve never pitched non-fiction and don’t have a clue how to do it, so if that’s what you’re after, sorry! They’re called proposals, by the way. However, the basic principles still apply. The only difference is in the format and content of the actual query letter. Everything else I’m telling you is the same.
Now that you’ve heard the inevitable (you’re going to have to do one), how are you going to go about it? The easy answer is to tell you to go to the bookstore or the wyberry (library, sorry, I like to play with words) and stock up with literally (if that isn’t a metaphor) hundreds of books on writing query letters. Or, I could condense it all down for you and let you know what’s worked for me and what hasn’t. Keep in mind that you can come up with a generic letter, but trust me, you’ll have to modify it for each agent. Not only is it good to personalize each one, but many agents have their own ideas of what a query letter should contain. A generic query letter smacks of impersonalization. That, my friends, is a big red flag with a trash can bulls-eye right in the middle of it.
The most successful query/pitch letters contain three things: The slug line (or pitch), what the story is about, and a bit about yourself (what makes you qualified to write the story). Of course, you don’t write those things exactly. Remember, this is a letter to a person, not a machine. The key is that the letter should be brief, to the point and only contain relevant information. On top of that, it must be grammatically correct, contain no typos and something you might not always hear from others, it cannot contain any negatives or sarcasm.
Whatever you do, do not put yourself or others down! Do not use sarcasm! I must step back and say that if the sarcasm is part of the plot or storyline, that’s something else. If it’s about you or other authors, do not use it!
DON’T GET CUTESY-POO
Another thing never to do, well, something that is extremely risky and 99% of the time doesn’t work, is to write the query letter in character. For example, I’m talking about your main character being a hard-bitten detective with a few screws loose upstairs. He or she writes the letter. It’s written on an old typewriter with a cigarette burn in one corner and coffee stains in another. The letter is folded wrong and you sign it with your character’s sloppy signature, typing your real name and address on the envelope. It’s cutesy-poo to-the-max, but most agents and publishers have been there and done that and can’t hit the trash can with it fast enough. Some may even respond with a nasty letter. Or, a romance writer may send their query on frilly stationary soaked in perfume.
Play it straight. No gags, no gimmicks to get yourself noticed. I’ve had more agents tell me they get extremely annoyed by these tactics and put these authors on their ***t lists. Though you’ll hear the anecdotes where this method worked, once done, it’s cliché. Keep that in mind.
I repeat, it’s extremely important the letter have no typos or grammatical errors. When an agent gets hold of it, if they see you can’t even write out a single page without an error, what will a novel or short story look like?
Next time, we break things down even further.