Table of Contents
A Novel Is Born
The Query & Its Pitch
Pitch Analysis #1
A Bit of Sun
Pitch Analysis #2
Sailing Away from the Moon
Pitch Analysis #3
On Categorization & Word Count
More Pitch Examples
From Nugget to Polished Pitch
Writing & Revising the Pitch
The Query Letter
Thou Shalt Not
No-No’s for Query Writing
This or That
Know Your Words
Your Author Voice
The Query Demystified
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pitch Analysis #1
Let’s look at that pitch again and see if it contains all the elements a query pitch should include:
A Bit of Sun
In mainstream novel A BIT OF SUN, Sydney architect Britt MacFarlane battles wills with famous fashion designer Lisa Farnsworth in Britt’s attempt to leave his mark on the city he loves. After Lisa’s near-suicide due to his rejection costs him his architectural career in Sydney, Britt still risks his life to save her from a construction blast before moving to Perth where, decades later, she again threatens to crush his dreams. Only by resolving his love-hate relationship with Lisa in a deadly confrontation does Britt finally achieve his destiny and learn to accept not only his fate but also himself.
Type of work: Fiction.
As opposed to nonfiction. The word novel makes it clear that this is a work of fiction.
Type of fiction: Novel.
Other book-length forms of fiction include novella and short story collection. The kind of pitch we are discussing here relates basically to novels and novellas. Use of the term novel in your pitch is enough to indicate that it is fiction. Do not use the term fiction novel as this is both amateurish and redundant. A novel by definition is fiction, and to call it a “fiction novel” in your query is to invite that query to be tossed into the rejection bin without its ever having been fully read.
There are any number of categories for fiction, including literary, mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and young adult, among others. Many novels, such as a mystery-thriller-romance, cross category lines. If that is the case for your novel, you will need to determine the dominant category—the bookstore shelf or online category where your potential readers would most likely search for your book. And although the category mainstream may seem all too vague, it is what it is, and sometimes this category is your only option.
Remember: True genre fiction must fall within specific industry guidelines, and if your novel does not, then perhaps it is a mainstream novel with a genre theme or emphasis, such as a mainstream love story as opposed to a romance novel. If this is the case, then you may want to mention the love story sub-category along with the mainstream category in your pitch.
If you are not sure into which category your story slots best, look at similar books online and in bookstores or look up fiction categories online and try to figure it out. Agents and editors take categorization of fiction very seriously because if your book gets published, it is going to have to go somewhere in the bookstore and/or online, preferably grouped with other fiction of the same nature.
Sub-category (optional): None.
If your book is a thriller, then that may be all you need to say. But if it has a significant specialized angle, such as legal, techno, or medical thriller, then you should include that sub-category in your pitch.
Series novel: No. Again, if your novel is part of a series, say so. And if it is the first, or debut, novel in your series, indicate that as well.
Name of series if relevant (optional): Not relevant.
If your fiction series has no official name except to be considered a [fill in the name of the main character here] novel, then you needn’t mention it; just call it a detective series novel, for instance, and then also include the name of the detective in the pitch.
Title: A Bit of Sun.
The title of a work is extremely important in attracting readers. Go for a title that is significant in relation to the story, reflects the mood of the story, is not overly long, and is intriguing in itself. The title for the novel A Bit of Sun is spot on for the first three of these requirements. As for the fourth, each reader will have to determine that for himself.
Main character (protagonist): Britt MacFarlane.
You will probably want to use the name of the character here although it is not mandatory: a five-year-old boy being brought up by wolves may suffice. (From there on you could simply refer to this character as the boy or wolf boy.)
If you are using the character’s name, think about how much of that name you want to use: Britt, Britt MacFarlane, or James Britton MacFarlane? In many cases, the more you reveal of the name the more you reveal of the character. By including the surname MacFarlane, this pitch reveals that the main character is of Scottish descent. On the other hand, James Britton MacFarlane sounds rather stuffy, and since neither Britt nor the novel he inhabits is stuffy, the more casual Britt MacFarlane works better. In your own pitch, go with what best fits the tone of the story and most accurately describes the personality of the character.
Many names indicate the gender and ethnicity of their bearers. In the case of Britt, as previously mentioned, gender is not self-evident. However, his last name, MacFarlane, is Scottish, and therefore we infer that Britt is of Scottish ancestry and probably an Anglo. Pronouns used in the pitch make it evident that Britt is male, and the story content indicates that he’s a fairly young adult at the beginning of the story and at least middle-aged at the end.
Most novels have only one protagonist or main character although some have two or more. Either way, you should make this evident in your pitch. In A Bit of Sun, Britt is obviously the main character as the pitch talks about his difficulty, his goal, his career, his inner conflict, his destiny, and his self-acceptance. The only other character mentioned is Lisa Farnsworth, the antagonist and a love interest. She is obviously a major character but not the main character.
Something significant and/or interesting about the main character: Britt is an architect who is emotionally attached to Sydney, the city in which he works.
Naming Britt’s profession—architecture—in the pitch serves a dual purpose: it not only tells us something about Britt’s personality but also introduces a significant component of the sustaining plot, which is Lisa’s determination to prevent Britt from practicing architecture to the extent he desires in the city of his choice.
If, on the other hand, your story concerns the heroic actions of a shoe salesman who happens to be on an airplane when it is hijacked, the fact that he works as a shoe salesman when not rescuing terrified airline passengers may well be irrelevant and therefore need not be mentioned in your pitch. What would be worth mentioning instead is that he is an Iraqi War veteran or an ex-convict, either of which might explain how he comes to be so quick-thinking, quick-acting, and exceptionally aggressive when he feels threatened.
Then again, if your shoe salesman is a middle-aged bachelor who lives with his mother and has worked only in a small town as a shoe salesman ever since high school, by all means mention his occupation and, in so doing, all that it implies in the literary arena. The contrast of his entire life up to this moment of great danger and his unexpected (even by him, most likely) reaction sounds like it could make a great story.
As for Britt’s strong emotional attachment to Sydney (which is not only the city in which he works but also the one in which he was born and now resides), his passion for both this place and his chosen profession is at the very core of the conflict between him and Lisa.
The goal of the main character: To become a great architect who beautifies his beloved city and uses his skills and influence to enhance the enjoyment of that city by its populace and visitors.
The main plot of a story usually revolves around the attempt of the protagonist to achieve some goal dear to his heart and all the obstacles he must overcome in order to do so. Therefore, it is worthwhile to mention that goal in your pitch. We have all yearned for something, and so Britt’s goal serves as a universal unifying factor in connecting the reader with the protagonist and thus with his story.
And now we get down to a final “rule” for writing a query pitch:
Let the pitch reveal the writing style used in your novel.
Oh, boy. This really is more easily said than done. Or is it? All this rule is saying is that you should use the same basic style in writing your pitch that you did in writing your novel. It’s true that, due to tight word-count restriction, you are much more constrained in your style when writing a pitch than you are when writing a novel, but the main point here is that the style should fit the content of the story. Just as the style used in writing an action-packed war story would differ from that used in a languid literary tale, so the writing style of the pitch for these two types of novels also should differ.
And that leaves us only one more aspect of the pitch to consider: the prose.
As you are further and further tightening the writing in your pitch, don’t get so carried away with word count that you forget the importance of the prose. Nay, not just the importance but the magic of the prose. And that includes both the vocabulary and the syntax, which together give prose its rhythm. Remember, you are not writing a technical manual here: you are writing literary prose, which—thanks to such authors as Conrad and Dickens—has earned a place next to poetry in the literary world. The words you choose to use and the order in which you place them make up the prose. And good prose can be just as melodious and rhythmic as poetry.
Rhythm is important in prose. That’s why the final sentence reads, in part, to accept not only his fate but also himself as opposed to the slightly less wordy to accept both his fate and himself, which says exactly the same thing in fewer words but, prose wise, falls flat.
In the end, how much information regarding the novel A Bit of Sun is the professional reader of this query likely to have gleaned?
A Bit of Sun is a mainstream novel about an Anglo-Australian male architect whose life’s dream is to contribute to the beauty and enjoyment of his beloved city, Sydney, through his skill and sensitivity as a designer of buildings and living spaces. Unfortunately, his every effort is thwarted by Lisa Farnsworth, a famous fashion designer with whom he has a love-hate relationship. Due to Britt’s rejection, Lisa attempts suicide, which results in Britt’s no longer being allowed to practice architecture in Sydney. Nonetheless, Britt risks his life to save her from an explosion before he moves to Perth where Lisa shows up decades later and threatens to crush his dreams once more. Ultimately, it takes a deadly confrontation to end this conflict, at which time Britt resolves his relationship with Lisa, fulfills his destiny, and learns to accept not only his fate but also himself. The theme of the novel is self-acceptance, and the writing itself indicates that the author is literate, capable of concise thinking and writing, and grammatically knowledgeable with a good sense of prose rhythm and syntax.
I’d say that’s quite a lot for a mere 100 words.
On Categorization & Word Count
Below is a list of all the categories, including sub-categories, addressed in this book with related sample pitches listed underneath. The word count for each pitch is given next to it.
CATEGORIZATION NOTE: When it comes to categorizing fiction, some books are difficult to pigeon hole. Is it a mystery, thriller, or romance novel? A romance novel or women’s fiction? Women’s fiction, mainstream novel, or literary fiction? For instance, The Best of Me, by Nicholas Sparks, is a love story billed as a “psychological thriller.” It is not a genre romance but might be considered a mainstream love story with supernatural elements. A Turn in the Road, by Debbie Macomber, might be considered women’s fiction, but sources on the internet refer to it as “contemporary romance” (although one review did call it “contemporary romance/women’s fiction”), and Barnes and Noble has shelved it in the bookstore’s Romance section; hence I use that designation.
My local Barnes and Noble store avoids most of this trauma by limiting its fiction categories to only a few: Mystery, Romance, Fantasy/Sci Fi, and Manga, thus allowing Tom Clancy and Henry James to be found in the same shelving section along with all sorts of other writers under the remaining widely-inclusive category Literature/Fiction. Kudos to you, B&N. We writers only wish we could use your method!
So in writing these pitch examples, I just use a category that makes sense to me (even though it may not be the official category designated by the author, publisher, or bookstore) unless I note a specific category named on the book jacket or elsewhere. If you disagree with my (or the publisher’s) choice of category, please accept my condolences and read on.
PITCH EXAMPLES BY CATEGORY
Killing Floor, by Lee Child [96 words]
Discord’s Apple, by Carrie Vaughn [97 words]
Smokin’ Seventeen, by Janet Evanovich [99 words]
CHICK LIT FANTASY
Wicked Appetite, by Janet Evanovich [100 words]
Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen [99 words]
A Turn in the Road, by Debbie Macomber [98 words]
The Professional, by Robert B. Parker [100 words]
The Bingo Palace, by Louise Erdrich (Native American) [98 words]
Cold Fire, by Dean R. Koontz [100 words]
Tatiana, by Martin Cruz Smith [85 words]
The Brass Verdict, by Michael Connelly [100 words]
Edible Stories: A Novel in Sixteen Parts, by Mark Kurlansky [67 words]
To Be Sung Underwater, by Tom McNeal [96 words]
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett [73 words]
A Bit of Sun, by Ann Henry [100 words]
A Secret Kept, by Tatiana de Rosnay [98 words]
MAINSTREAM LOVE STORY
Sailing Away from the Moon, by Ann Henry [81 words]
Extreme Measures, by Michael Palmer [100 words]
Death in Vineyard Waters, by Philip R. Craig [95 words]
Night and Day, by Robert B. Parker [95 words]
POLICE PROCEDURAL THRILLER
Mad River, by John Sandford [91 words]
The Pied Piper, by Ridley Pearson [98 words]
The Best of Me, by Nicholas Sparks [94 words]
Envy, by Sandra Brown [79 words]
Midnight Bayou, by Nora Roberts [98 words]
Safe Haven, by Nicholas Sparks [95 words]
SHORT STORY COLLECTION
The Last Lovely City, by Alice Adams [46 words]
The Mission Song, by John LeCarré [100 words]
Life Expectancy, by Dean Koontz [100 words]
Swinging Statues, by Ann Henry [85 words]
Robert B. Parker’s Ironhorse, by Robert Knott [100 words]
Night Road, by Kristin Hannah [100 words]
Number of Pitches: 32
Number of Categories (including sub-categories): 25
Highest pitch word count: 100
Lowest pitch word count: 46
Average pitch word count: 93
Note that every single pitch is limited to 100 words or less. This is not a hard and fast rule. I hardly think the query reader is going to stop and count the words and toss out your query if the pitch seems a little long, but I have found through practice that even the most complicated of stories can be reduced to such a short paragraph. Furthermore, even though I have been seriously tempted to let a pitch expand to 105 (an honest cheat, wouldn’t you say?) or even as little as 101 words, I have wrangled with it until I got it down to no more than 100 words and in the end have been satisfied that this, indeed, is just as good as if not better than the longer version.
So make yourself do it. If it truly doesn’t work—if you simply must include those few extra words—then by all means do so; I would never recommend sacrificing quality for a slight lack of quantity. But remember:
THE PITCH IS ONLY A TEASER
© 2016 Ann Henry, all rights reserved.