06 July 2016

Your Pitch to Publication query letter

Query letters are tricky beasts, difficult for most authors to write. Going in, we know this. But your query letter is important because it's what's going to get me excited about reading your first five pages and, more importantly, give me a sense of what I'm not seeing: namely, p. 6 to the end. It's going to clue me into whether you know what your book is about, whether the narrative arc makes sense, and whether you have a story I can invest myself in.

There are LOADS of posts all over the Internet about how to write a tight, enticing query letter for an agent. See for example Jane Friedman's, the one on Writer's Digest, or the oft-cited Query Shark site. This post is about how to write an enticing query letter for Pitch to Publication.

How is the P2P QL similar to a QL for an agent?

It's not that writing a query letter for Pitch to Publication is entirely different from writing one for an agent; there are definitely some guidelines that apply to both.

Your Pitch to Publication query letter should include the book data (title, target audience, genre, word count, comps if you can/want to), hook, bio, and thank you.

As with any good hook, I want to know about the setting, MC(s), premise, goal, and stakes. The best query letters also have a strong voice that reflects the voice of the novel; it's a window into what I can expect when I get to the pages. Your hook is the mini-synopsis; it should be no more than three paragraphs, and aim for 7-11 sentences total.

Your QL also needs to illustrate how your novel is familiar but different. This can be done through comps, but your hook needs to reflect it too.
What not to do: Recently on Twitter I saw a promo for a book that read something like Two friends get teleported into a video game and have to fight their way back out to reality. Granted, this is just the premise, but it doesn't grab me because I feel like I've read that story several times, and it's less interesting than other video game-premise stories I've read/seen, e.g. Ender's Game, Existenz, Stay Alive, etc. What's the twist? What's new about this story? Also, what are the stakes here? Why do we care?

How is the P2P QL different?

That said, there are some significant differences, too. I cannot speak for all my fellow P2P editors, and I'm not going to try. But there are a few ways that I look differently at query letters than an agent would.

1. Whereas many agents want to see your book data first, I want to see the hook first. Agents need the book data first in order to decide whether to spend the time reading the rest of the letter. But I want to know about the story straight away. Save the book data for after the hook.

2. Some agents don't want you to talk about the novel's theme in the QL, but I do. I'm super excited when the QL promises a theme that I'm passionate about and/or the conflict treads on moral gray area. I'm looking for a tight, well-written hook that shows me you know exactly what your book is about, not just what happens.

3. Because you'll be submitting to multiple editors at the same time, you can't personalize your letter to me, so don't worry about that part.

4. I don't really care about your comps UNLESS the comps can show me that your book is a unique blend of things I already love. How do you know what I love? It's in my profile, right under my MSWL. (You are reading the editors' profiles, right? Every. Single. Word?) Keep in mind, though: If you stalk my profile and use comps that you know I'm super into in order to entice me to read your pages, but then it turns out that your book is not like the comps, I am going to be SUPER grumpy with you. Not only will I move your sub to the Pass pile, but I may even stick my tongue out at you for good measure.

5. I care about word count. A lot. We only have a month. We can't work miracles. Unless you, like Evie from Out of This World, can touch your fingertips together and stop time, in which case bring it on. And I might have a couple other favors to ask.... So yeah, include your novel's word count, and make sure it's something we have time to work with. Ideally it's going to be 80K-105K for an adult book regardless of genre. (40K-79K is okay as long as the book is fully developed. Less than 40K is considered a novella.)

6. Although it's a standard feature of a QL and should be included, I'm probably not going to read your bio. It's not that I don't care about who you are and what your writing chops are - I do! - it's just that I care way more about your story, especially when I'm narrowing down the subs to Requests for Partials. And at that point, I'm going to base our compatibility on your answers to my questions and on what I've seen from you on Twitter, not on your bio.

7. I will love you forever if you include your email address under your name in your QL. It makes it SO much easier and faster for me to email your feedback when you do this. Otherwise I have to hunt around in Submittable, and doing that for 100 people is, to say the least, time-consuming.

You'll for sure end up in the Pass pile if...

  • Your book is in a genre that's not on my MSWL. Although my MSWL for this contest doesn't represent all the kinds of books I love to work with, I do need to set some boundaries for my sanity's sake. Please respect the boundaries.
  • The pages don't match the query letter. If your query letter leads me to expect one thing, and the five pages you submit seem unrelated, it looks like you either made a big uh-oh or you don't know what your story is about.
  • You try to tell me how great your book is. This is something I want to decide for myself, thank you.
  • The tone of the QL comes across as pompous or condescending. When this happens, I assume the author is hard to work with: they don't listen well, are resistant to constructive feedback, and might even try to tell me how to do my job. That may not be true, but it's what an arrogant tone communicates to me. If in doubt, trade QLs with a few honest people who don't know you that well and ask them.
Seriously, those are the only surefire ways to end up in my Pass pile. There's a lot I'm willing to overlook, especially since we're all a work in progress here. Even if your book is 225K, if your pages rock my socks off and you're willing to cut your book in half, I'll at the very least be willing to take a second look. (One such book even ended up on my short list back in March.) But hopefully by the time October P2P rolls around, you'll have already cut your book in half because you've read this post and you know that's way too long for the time we have. Right??

Hearing from you makes my day. 
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  1. It's so interesting that you want themes in the query! Everything I've read recently, if mentioned at all, says to leave them out. My novel had a significant theme that's unique and dear to my heart, but it feels unrelated to the plot in the context of a tight query. Do you have an examples where this is done well?

    I'm so excited to submit today! Your blog is chalked full of outstanding advice and your bio certainly hooked me. Watch for me on your list.


    1. Hi, Carrie!

      As you point out, the theme can be what's truly unique about the novel and it can be the part that resonates most with the reader, so I like to see them. I think the trick to working a significant theme into a query is to articulate its relationship to the motive, goal, and/or stakes. How is the theme essential to the story you're telling?

      I realize this is pretty broad advice, but hopefully it's somewhat helpful. I look forward to reading your submission! =*)