Query Letters: The Pitch

So far in this brief series, we’ve covered three topics:

Why Query?

The Basic Structure of the Query Letter

Placing Your Work in the Market

Today, I’ll talk about the pitch. The pitch consists of a few sentences that describe the central conflict of your novel in a compelling manner. The pitch is distinct from the synopsis in a couple ways.

First, the pitch does not reveal the end of the story. Rather, the pitch seeks to hook the reader’s attention so they will want to know more. Think of the back cover blurb found on most paperbacks. The blurb tells the reader just enough to get them to open the book and start reading. In a query letter, the pitch serves the same function: to ignite the interest of the agent or editor, so they will want to read more.

Second, the pitch is usually less detailed and shorter than the synopsis. The synopsis outlines all major plot points of the manuscript, including the end. Spoilers are not only allowed in a synopsis, they are expected. Because of its extended content, the synopsis usually requires at least one page and often several. The pitch is a more concise, often limited to a single paragraph.

Today’s post is about the pitch, not the synopsis. But it’s worth noting that many of the same principles apply to writing both. I may come back to the synopsis in a later post, if I’m feeling ambitious.

Writing a pitch is daunting for a novelist. After all, we tend to use 80,000-120,000 words to deliver one story. The set up alone – let’s say, the first three chapters – might have taken us 10,000 words. How to summarize all that in just a few sentences? It’s like crafting a firework when we’re accustomed to building campfires. Firewords burst bright, fade fast, and make everyone say, “Aaaaah! I want to see more!” Campfires burn slow, but keep you warm – and entertained – for hours on end. Surely it’s not possible to translate our unique, beautiful, slow-burning campfire into a single short-lived firework! Yet this is what we must do in order to market our work.

There are a lot of resources out there for writing a successful pitch. All the ones I’ve read (and listened to) have been useful, and I suggest you consider more than one resource when researching the pitch. As always, my purpose here is not to give you a definitive answer on how to write the pitch, but to provide some guidelines and ideas based on what has worked for me.

First, focus on the main character. What makes them unique, or their life situation interesting, at the moment when the story starts? Try to describe your main character in one to two sentences, focusing on traits the reader is likely to connect to or sympathize with.

Second, identify the inciting incident. In other words, what sets the story in motion? This could be any of a number of things depending on your story: a message, an accident, the appearance of an old love interest. The inciting incident sets up the conflict for your character and should be identified clearly in the pitch.

Third, tell us what’s at stake for the main character. What will they lose if they can’t resolve the conflict set in motion by the inciting incident? Try to be specific as possible, and keep it personal for the MC. “they’ll lose everything they hold dear” sounds big, but it’s also vague. A more specific statement, e.g., “their family estate will fall into ruin,” offers higher stakes and more tension for the reader.

Let’s walk through an example from my novel Eolyn. Here are my responses to the above questions:

Who is the main character? What makes them unique, or their life situation particularly interesting, at the moment the story starts? My main character is Eolyn. At the beginning of the story, she is the sole survivor of a violent purge against women practitioners of magic. The purge is executed by the Mage King Kedehen, who has outlawed women’s magic.

What is the inciting incident? What sets the story in motion? To escape the purges, Eolyn flees to the South Woods. There, she continues her studies in magic. She also meets a young mage named Akmael. Eolyn and Akmael develop a special friendship, but they are destined to oppose each other. Eolyn does not know this because Akmael has kept a secret from her: he is son and heir to the Mage King, the same man who killed Eolyn’s family and sent her into exile.

What is at stake for the main character? Eolyn wants to practice magic, but women who practice magic are sentenced to death. To recover her rights and restore women’s magic to her people, she must fight the Mage King. This means risking her own life while taking up arms against – and perhaps killing – Akmael, the same man she came to love in the South Woods.

In answering these questions, I’ve distilled a 118,000-word story into a few main ideas. Still, what I have so far is too long for a pitch. To write the pitch itself, I need to sew these elements together in a more concise fashion. I also need to add some splash and polish to the wording. Here’s one example of what the final pitch might look like:

In a land ravaged by civil war, the Mage King initiates a ruthless purge of women practitioners. Eolyn, sole heiress to a forbidden craft, escapes by fleeing to the South Woods. There, she meets and befriends the mysterious Akmael. But Akmael has a secret: He is the Mage Prince, son and heir to the man who slaughtered Eolyn’s family. To defeat the Mage King and regain her freedom, Eolyn must take up arms against the man closest to her heart.

Confession: I’m not entirely happy with this pitch. In fact, the hardest part of this entire post was writing the darn pitch! But this brings me to my last point: If you’re like me, you’re a perfectionist, and you can look at the same pitch so many times your eyes start to hurt. For this and other reasons, I suggest you always share your pitch with writer friends who can help you fix and refine it. Don’t just rely on yourself. Knock out the first draft of your pitch, and share with friends as soon as possible.

Just for fun, I invite you to use the comments section to discuss the pitch I composed for Eolyn. What do you like about it? What do you think can be improved, and how? I’d also love to see any pitches you are working on, and I’m happy to provide you with feedback as well!

As a final note, keep in mind that some query letters open by describing the market and ideal reader for the manuscript. Others dive straight into the pitch, saving discussion of the market for paragraph two. Agents may have different preferences with respect to the order of these first two paragraphs. As will all aspects of querying, doublecheck the guidelines of the agent or publisher and make sure you follow them closely.

That’s my take on pitches! In my fifth and last post for this series, I’ll talk about the third paragraph of every query, the author’s biography.

2 thoughts on “Query Letters: The Pitch

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