PITCHING SUMMARY 2017
Every year, I do at least one article about pitching prior to the Las Vegas Writer’s conference. Since each one is basically a repeat of the previous year, what I decided to do this time was take last year’s three articles and condense them into one long article. This saves you going back into the archives. Those of you looking for insight from someone who’s had 100% effectiveness getting a foot in the door, regardless of the final outcome, you might find this info useful.
Also take note that what I present below doesn’t necessarily comply with the latest standard teachings of my writer’s group. Therefore, at the meetings, I stay silent. However, it works. Trust me on this, and no, that’s not a cliché. It’s the truth. It really works. Take that for what you will.
THE PITCH LETTER (QUERY LETTER)
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 Bruce 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. In other words, lightning in a bottle.
THE REAL WORLD
Unfortunately, that doesn’t often happen 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 reading.
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 (non-fiction queries) 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) 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 (based on the mistakes I’ve seen other people make). 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, don’t 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?
What Not To Do in a query letter
In this first part, we’ll get down to some technical thingies. We’re going to go over what not to do. Then, I’ll show you one that’s worked.
I mentioned never to use negativity, or put yourself down. Here are a few examples. Some are overt, while a few may be a bit more subtle.
I know you get lots of submissions, but before you throw mine in the slush pile, I’d appreciate if you’d give me a chance.
Ding ding ding! Red flag! You’re starting negative right out of the gate! Don’t even bring the subject up! In the first place, you should be starting with your slug line. Second, you’re giving the agent the perfect excuse to do just what you are hoping they won’t do.
I’ve been submitting to lots of agents, but was hoping you’d be the right one for my work.
Do I have to explain this one?
I’m a struggling writer and found your agency on line. I would like to present my character…
A little more subtle, but saying you are a struggling writer is not only a cliché, it’s a given and also a negative. No need to voice it. Scratch the first sentence.
Thank you for considering my work. I may not be the best writer in the world, but I know I’ve come up with a winner here.
You had him or her at the first sentence and blew it with the rest. Hack off that second sentence.
IRRELEVANT MATERIAL & FLUFF
Now for a little biography sample.
I’m an accomplished writer with high grades in English grammar in high school and college. I excelled at all of my term papers and almost had an article published in the alumni newsletter but due to budget constraints, the issue was never printed. I had a short story called The Flag printed in Mystery Journal for Fiberglas Press, 1989.
She’s a mystery writer. The only relevant credit is the last one. The rest of it is pure fluff and irrelevant. Trash it. Inflating a bio with irrelevant material is no way to win friends with an agent. If you only have one credit, so be it. In the good old days, it was okay to throw in the kitchen sink. Nowadays, agents don’t have time to slog through all this crap looking for gems. You’re better off to keep it tight and right. Besides, almosts don’t count.
I’m sure you get lots of “great” stories at your agency, but now get ready for a real treat. XXX will blow you away.
Oh, please! Sarcasm, conceit, bragging, grammar problems, the list goes on.
One That Worked
Now I’m going to show you a pitch letter that worked. Below is the letter that I handed to the publisher that gave me the contract for my upcoming novel, Meleena’s Adventures – Treasure Of The Umbrunna. Keep in mind that I handed it to her at the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference and pitched to her in person. After I sold her on the idea, she had me send it along with the first 50 pages plus a synopsis, which was on the back of this letter.
I’ve included notes of explanation where appropriate, and left off the headers and dates and a photo, which is something (the photo) you shouldn’t put on a letter you’re mailing out (though this is something up for argument with some authors and agents)! Also, I modified parts of it (left off the second paragraph) so as not to give away the actual plot in case anyone wants to read the book, which is out now.
Re: Meleena’s Adventures – Treasure Of The Umbrunna
Fantasy – 79,500 words
Pen name: Ray Brooks (I have since dumped this idea and went with my real name).
All she wanted was to get rich, but in the end, will she sacrifice all to help another? If she isn’t careful, people may start to think she’s a decent person. (This is the pitch line, the first thing I said to her after introducing myself.)
Meleena goes through life one picked pocket at a time. With a wild heart, she spends each night with a different man, and often wakes up in a strange place. When she goes after a valuable pearl hidden in a lost city called Slab, she figures this is the way to the easy life. An old magick user named Grel may hold the key to finding this pearl, and he insists she not go alone if she hopes to survive. Despite second thoughts and an aversion to working with others, she gathers a team and heads for the lost city. However, she’s not the only one after the pearl, and Meleena enters into a race to get there first. (This is the body of the text. It should be one paragraph, but I broke a rule and made it two short ones (the second one I left off here). It worked. They were condensed from the original. The whole point was that the entire letter had to fit on one page, letterhead, spacing, signature, credits, all of it. Keep it brief!)
I’m a member of the Henderson Writer’s Group in Henderson, Nevada. My short story, The House, appeared in the anthology Between the Pages, 2003. The Walk Home was published in the story collection Writer’s Bloc 2006, The Basement in Writer’s Bloc 2, 2008, and Fun In The Outland in First Voyage, 2008. (Remember, relevant writing credits, which should include a writer’s group, if you’re in one. Though none of these stories are actually fantasy, the chances of the publisher checking, or actually finding those books were pretty slim, so I took the chance. Turns out, many of those books were for sale at the conference! Also, the titles could mean anything, and at least they show I’m a prolific and published writer. Just make sure if you do this, you don’t put something down that’s obviously not relevant. Also, note that the info is dated. I’ve since published quite a few more things that aren’t listed since this was written several years ago, plus one short story directly related to Meleena.)
Thank you for your time.
Fred B. Rayworth
There you go. An example, a visual aid, without giving away too much of the actual story, but hopefully, enticing you to read it. This example also gives you an idea of one way to successfully pitch to an agent.
The synopsis is a breakdown of your story. It’s another form of an outline, but in complete sentences, no bullets and in present-tense. The purpose of the synopsis is to tell your complete story to the agent or publisher. Specifically, you need to outline the main character, the main conflict, and the resolution. Yes, you must tell the ending. The synopsis tells the complete story (I repeat), from beginning to end, in abbreviated form. The key is the length. For the pitch letter at a conference, and for some queries to agents, it should be one page. For some agent queries, it might be two to three pages. From there, where a full manuscript is requested, it could be three to ten pages, depending on the individual requirements of the agency. The key is to follow their instructions explicitly. As a general rule, stick to one page, unless told otherwise. One good thing about sticking to these rigid requirements is that it keeps your writing tight.
THE SYNOPSIS WILL SHOW FLAWS IN YOUR PLOTTING
A synopsis can be extremely hard to write properly. However, it can also be a very good way to reveal how well your story has been put together. It’s a good way to spot any red flags in flow and plot. When you break down your story into a few paragraphs, just to get the key plot elements, you’re going to see right away if it all holds together. If, at the end of your synopsis, you notice that the story doesn’t hold water, you may need to go back and do some rewriting!
One way to develop your synopsis is to start by describing each scene or chapter (if you have a lot) in one bullet sentence. Compile all of these bullets and look them over for the key patterns. If something looks extraneous, maybe it shouldn’t be there. Once you have that down, turn these bullets into sentences and then organized paragraphs so they flow together.
For me, I have the whole story in my head. In my creative process, I only know where I want to start and where I want to end, the middle is a total surprise. Once I get going and write it all down, it becomes locked in my head. As I edit it over and over again, the plot and all the details become locked in so when I sit down to write my synopsis, I already have the big picture going for me. I don’t have to bullet out each chapter. However, I don’t expect all of you out there to write or create the same way I do, so I’m throwing that bullet method out for you.
KEEP CHARACTER NAMES TO A MINIMUM
The key elements are that you introduce the main character and maybe their adversary by name only. Everyone else remains unnamed. They’re just anonymous characters as far as the synopsis is concerned. The first time you name these one or two characters, you put them in italics. From then on, they’re in regular font. Don’t get bogged down in unnecessary details such as naming a whole bunch of characters, names or places in the story. Don’t list time lines either, especially on a one-page synopsis! Describe the plot, describe what happens, describe what, where, when, why and how the character gets from point a to point b and what happens at the end. Nothing more, nothing less.
If you’re writing a two, three or more page synopsis, a few sentences per chapter might be appropriate unless you have eighty chapters. Again, if you do this, it should read almost like a short story. It should make sense on its own. If it doesn’t, you need to work on the plot some more before you try pitching it.
DON’T LET IT GO, SIGHT UNSEEN!
The final element to all of this, before you ever even think of turning it in to an agent or publisher: Get someone or several other people to read it first! There’s nothing like second sets of eyes to see what you can’t!
THE FACE TO FACE
LIKE A JOB INTERVIEW
I’ve always considered the pitch session as a job interview. That’s exactly what it is. The difference is that it’s a two way street. Not only will you be working for the agent and/or publisher, they’ll be working for you. When you get right down to it, you’re also interviewing them. The biggie right now though, is that the person you’re about to sit down with is holding all the cards. They have the power, the knowledge, and the abilities to take your hopes and dreams and turn them into a reality.
To make this less dramatic, you have a product and you’re looking for a manufacturer to produce, distribute and sell that product. You’re the inventor of said product. It’s your job to try to convince a manufacturer to take your product, refine it and produce it for mass consumption.
If you’re lucky enough to attend a good conference, you might have a scenario similar to what we have at the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference. I’m using this one as an example not only to once again plug it (it takes place 20-22 April, 2017), but also because I have intimate knowledge of how this conference works.
You’ll sign in, and for the price of admission, get to pick at least one agent appointment slot, maybe more, depending on the schedule and the number of people adding in names. From personal experience, I’ve never had a problem seeing any agent I’ve wanted to see. These appointments might be the first, second, or third day, first thing in the morning through the end of each day. Because of that, there’s a good chance that during any classes (seminars) you choose, during breaks, and during meals you might find yourself talking face-to-face with the very agent to which you’re going to be pitching your book. These are good times to get to know them, feel them out, find out what are their likes and dislikes. Get to know them as a person. You’re more than likely going to find them great people. Once in a while, you’ll find a total jerk. That’s happened to me a few times. I pitched to them anyway. Most of the jerks actually had me send them something and I got the expected results. One took two years to respond. I’d totally forgot about him, then out of the blue, I got a letter. “Not for me.”
As I alluded to above, the agent you’re pitching to might be teaching one of the classes (seminars) you signed up for. That’s another good way to get to know them and what they stand for, what they like and dislike, and how you might approach them. Meals are a good place to talk shop and hear the latest gossip in the publishing world. You can learn the trends and even find out what’s going on with your genre. That could help you slant your pitch when you sit down with them.
THE SIT DOWN
When it’s finally time for your pitch session, even though you may have met face-to-face before, sit down, shake their hand and introduce yourself. Then, when they ask you to tell them about your book, start out with your slug line. Those are the one or two sentences that introduce your story. From there, if you wrote them well, the agent should ask you to tell them more. That’s when you give them a brief, and I mean brief, synopsis including how the story ends.
Do not, and I mean do not ramble on and get off on tangents! Watch the agents’ body language. If their eyes start to wander or glaze over, you’ve lost them. You have to give them a one-two punch. You have to make them want more. When you sit down, your pitch letter, with the short synopsis on the back, should be slipped over to them first thing. They may glance at it, they may not. They may actually read it as they listen to your pitch. However, the chances are, they won’t actually take it. They’ll have you mail it to them. If that’s the case, make sure you revise the letter at the first paragraph to include that it was really nice to meet and talk with them at the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference bla bla bla (or whichever conference you attend). That paragraph is key, so that it puts a time and place on your meeting. Also at the bottom of the letter, make sure to include “I’ve attached … sample chapters and a … page synopsis per your request.”
Lately, agents and publishers have been asking what you’ll do to market your book. I’ve watched as some authors look back with blank faces, or stumble around, hem and ha and go blank. How you’ll market your book is now the hot-button topic to add to your list.
One more thing, never ever force pitch your book in casual conversation. Don’t be pushy. That’s a great way to turn them off. However, if you’re talking at lunch, dinner or wherever, the subject of your writing comes up and the agent says, “Well, tell me about your book,” they’re inviting you in. Otherwise, leave the pitching for your appointment.
From here forward, all I can say is good luck, and happy writing!