Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Writing a Selling Query or Pitch in Four Easy Steps

By Elle Strauss

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Queries are the bane of many writers, so I'm always delighted to offer advice on how to write one. Today, Elle Strauss is here to give us her tips on dealing with these often difficult letters.

Elle writes time travel and merfolk chic-lit, light SF and historical YA fiction. She has one husband, four kids and two cats. She’s fond of Lindt's sea salt dark chocolate and hiking in good weather. CLOCKWISE is her first YA release. You can find her on Facebook,twitter @elle_strauss,and her blog at www.ellestraussbooks.blogspot.com. Come say hi!

Take it away Elle...

Knowing how to condense the idea of your novel into a two or three paragraph pitch is a skill that you will always need. In fact, it's basically what goes on the back jacket flap.

So, what makes a good query/pitch?

1.Tell us who the story is about.

2. Add the circumstance,

3. the conflict

4. and the hook.

I'll use the query that got me my first agent as an example, which also ended up being the basis for the jacket flap.

In CLOCKWISE (YA, chick lit, 60K), boy watching with her best friend would be enough excitement for fifteen year old Casey Donavan. Who it's about. She doesn't even mind life at the bottom of the Cambridge High social ladder, if only she didn’t have this other much bigger problem. Unscheduled trips to the nineteenth century!(A little more about who it's about. It’s okay to elaborate a little).

When Casey gets talked into going to the Fall Dance, the unthinkable happens--she accidentally takes Nate Mackenzie, the cutest boy in the school, back in time. The circumstance.

Protocol pressures her to tell their 1860 hosts that he is her brother and when Casey finds she has a handsome, wealthy (and unwanted) suitor, something changes in Nate. Are those romantic sparks or is it just ‘brotherly’ protectiveness? When they return to the present things go back to the way they were before: Casey at the bottom of the social flag pole and Nate practically the flag flying from the top.The conflict. (Actually there are a few conflicts listed here, but one is usually enough).

Except this time her heart is broken. Plus, her best friend is mad, her parents are split up, and her little brother gets escorted home by the police. The only thing that could make life worse is if, by some strange twist of fate, she took Nate back to the past again.

Which, of course, she does. The hook.

That alone would suffice as a pitch. In a query you should add a little information about yourself.

I added that I'd had editor requests from a Writers Conference I'd recently attended, my publishing history and two book titles whose readers I thought would enjoy this book.

Thank the agent for his or her time (make sure you address the query to them personally).

Sign it “Sincerely,” with your real (not pen) name.

Let’s look at the jacket flaps of a couple popular books.

Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

Evie’s always thought of herself as a normal teenager Who it’s about despite the fact that she works for the International paranormal Containment Agency, her ex boy friend is a faerie, she’s falling for a shape shifter and she’s the only person who can see through paranormals’ glamours. The circumstance.

But Evie’s about to realize that she may very well be at the center of a dark faerie prophecy promising destruction to all paranormal creatures. The conflict.

So much for normal. The hook.

Matched by Ally Condie

(This one doesn’t follow the four point plan and I don’t think it’s as strong as it could be. What do you think?)

In the Society, Official decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die. Here the circumstance is given before we find out who the story is about.

Cassia has always trusted their choices. Who it’s about, but not a lot of info. It’s barely any price to pay for a long life, the perfect job, the ideal mate. So when her best friend appears on the Matching screen, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is the one…until she sees another face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black. The conflict Now Cassia is faced with impossible choices: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s known and a path no one else has ever dared follow--between perfection and passion. More on the conflict but not a real hook.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

Seventeen year old Jena Fox has just awaken from a year-long coma Who it’s about--so she’s been told--and she is still recovering from the terrible accident that caused it. The circumstance. But what happened before that? She’s been given home movies chronicling her entire life, which spark memories to surface. But are the memories really hers? And why won’t anyone in her family talk about the accident? The conflict. Jenna is becoming more curious. But she is also afraid of what she might find out if she ever gets up the courage to ask her questions.

What happened to Jenna Fox? And who is she, really? The hook.

(I think this is the strongest one of the bunch. What do you think?)

Any questions? If you'd like to post your query/pitch in the comments I'd be happy to give a gentle critique, which I’ll post on my blog at www.ellestraussbooks.blogspot.com

Thanks for having me, Janice!

About Clockwise

A teenage time traveler accidentally takes her secret crush back in time. Awkward.

Boy watching with her best friend would be enough excitement for fifteen year old Casey Donovan. She doesn't even mind life at the bottom of the Cambridge High social ladder, if only she didn’t have this other much bigger problem. Unscheduled trips to the nineteenth century!

When Casey gets talked into going to the Fall Dance, the unthinkable happens--she accidentally takes Nate Mackenzie, the cutest boy in the school, back in time.

Protocol pressures her to tell their 1860 hosts that he is her brother and when Casey finds she has a handsome, wealthy (and unwanted) suitor, something changes in Nate. Are those romantic sparks or is it just ‘brotherly’ protectiveness?

When they return to the present things go back to the way they were before: Casey at the bottom of the social totem pole and Nate perched on the very the top. Except this time her heart is broken. Plus, her best friend is mad, her parents are split up, and her little brother gets escorted home by the police. The only thing that could make life worse is if, by some strange twist of fate, she took Nate back to the past again.

Which of course, she does.


  1. Thanks for the great post Elle. You make the query sound so easy. The examples with your comments were extremely helpful. I'm saving them.

    Now I just need to tackle my query and see if I can make writing it as easy as you've said.

  2. Yay, examples of queries! They're hard to come by, and it always help to see how authors write them.

    Perhaps I can use this structure for when I get to the query letter.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I'm knee-deep in this process right now and blogging my drafts of my query for feedback and it's been a great learning experience. (Latest: http://angelaquarles.com/2011/11/21/oh-for-a-title/) I will put these tips to use to fine-tune it, thank you! Plus it's cool to see yours had time travel (mine's a time travel romance).

    Thanks again!

  4. This post is so clear and the examples so good I'm taking notes. :) Thank you both!

  5. Thank you for the offer of a gentle critique. Here is my query:

    Nan Macomb—a spunky thirty-five-year-old Nashville hair stylist—works her cut-and-color magic in a tiny home salon while gabby clients keep her up-to-date on the latest hair-raising gossip. Bombarded by one too many anecdotes about music exec Randy Soleman’s cheating heart (and other body parts), she barges into his Music Row office and finds her former lover bludgeoned to death with his own Grammy Award.

    Strong evidence implicates Nan, so she recruits her two best friends—a depressed, stay-at-home mom and a country music singer wannabe—to help keep her butt out of jail. The trio combs the Music City, following clues and miscues to uncover theft, infidelity, and deceit in both Randy’s personal and professional worlds. In the process, they encounter more types of addiction than shades of blonde.

    When the apparent suicide of Randy’s brother stymies the police, Nan, a long-time puzzle enthusiast, discovers an encrypted message buried in the words of his suicide note. The message could ensure her freedom . . . if she can get it to the police before the killer gets to her.

    Again, many thanks.

  6. Had to leave for work so couldn't paste my query for critique but here it is (thank you!)

    Isabelle Rochon has met the man of her dreams.  There's only one problem: he lives in a different century.  Talk about a long-distance relationship!

    A modern American working at the British Museum, Isabelle just wants to know what it was like to live 'back then.'  But not really. When a silver card case strands her in 1834, she must navigate the pitfalls of a stiffly polite London, find out how to get back, keep her origins a secret, and, oh, resist her growing attraction to Lord Montagu, the Vicious Viscount so hot he curls her toes.

    To Lord Montagu nothing makes more sense than to keep his distance from the strange Colonial. However, when his scheme for revenge reaches a stalemate, he needs her to masquerade as his fiancée. A bargain is struck. What he did not bargain on is being drawn to her mentally as well as physically. Now, nothing makes more sense than to make their engagement official. Except to his fiancée.

    Isabelle must find the case, or she'll be stuck in 1834 where they haven't heard of toilet paper or women's lib. The fact that she's falling in love with Lord Montagu isn't helping either. Staying would be the ultimate follow-the boyfriend move and she can't go through that again.

    TO OUR FUTURE is a 95,000 word novel featuring such historical figures as Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. Fans of LOST IN AUSTEN will love the modern woman's fish out of water foibles, while experiencing a more scientific and mechanical London. It is similar in tone to THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE PINK CARNATION, and Katie Macalister's contemporary romances. It is a standalone novel with the potential to be a prequel in a series of steampunk romances.

  7. I'm really glad so many of you have found this helpful. I'll get to the gentle critiques shorty. :)

  8. Thank you for the offer of a critique. Very much appreciated....

    When 16-year-old Becca Ford discovers potion-making plants missing from the nursery where she works, she sets herself up as a target for a secret coven in Sugarland. Becca doesn’t think of herself as anything special, but when she and protector Derek Moore take off to save her they discover there’s more to Becca than anyone suspects.

    Becca’s ability to glow explains her gift with plants but also makes her a target of the magical government. Derek has been raised with the belief that The Halo is evil, but the girl he’s gotten to know isn’t dangerous. In fact, she’s smart, funny and attractive… at least when she’s away from home.

    Becca’s always been one to hide in the background. Fully accepting her gift means being thrust into the spotlight to face powerful enemies. And possibly losing the first guy she’s ever been interested in.

    The Halo is a 70,000 word young adult fantasy…

  9. Gosh, I should really get to writing a query one day.

    However, I'm going to add this blog post to my blog's round-up. But for now, it will be listed here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/posts.php?discussion=13212389240A73120100&page=1#17

  10. I'm realizing it's difficult to perform the critique properly in the comment box. I will post the critiques on my blog on Tues, November 29.


  11. Thanks for the offer of a critique. After your post I got work on the query I've been avoiding for months:

    Alisa has her life all planned out: score a 2100 on the SAT, go to Princeton, become CFO of a major corporation. Notice boys did not make the list? She doesn't have time for something as menial as a boyfriend.

    But when she wakes up twenty years in the future, in place of her adult self, she finds nothing has gone according to plan. She has to figure out how to get her life back on track and save her future daughter from a custody battle so she can get home before she loses her chance at the college of her dreams.

    Then she meets a boy who changes all her plans. And any day she could slip back in time and lose him forever.

  12. Okay you inspired me to work on my critique as well. I'd love a critique.

    Thirteen-year-old Jasmine never believed love is stronger than blood. But when she convinces her best friend Austin to follow her into the magical land of Myrrdin, she discovers everyone there believes she can cast powerful defensive spells like her mysterious adoptive great-grandmother who once lived there. Much as she wishes it were true, she knows that’s impossible since she was adopted as a baby.

    Even so, Jasmine’s excited to study magic. Especially when she starts practicing more complicated spells on her own. Who wouldn’t be!

    But then she and Austin uncover Myrrdin’s dark secrets. Glazdick, a would-be dictator king, is desperately searching for a special wand once used to create an invisible wall around his country to imprison his people. Since it was designed by her great-grandmother, he’s convinced he can coerce Jasmine into wielding its power to destroy the barrier and allow him to overtake Myrrdin. Jasmine worries he’s right. Yet her inner yearning to learn magic drives her to stay in Myrridn even in the face of danger.

    She and Austin must find the wand and unravel its mysteries before Glazdick steals it. Because he’ll stop at nothing—even using Austin as a pawn—to make Jasmine help him. If Jasmine can’t discover how her adoptive family’s love unlocks her magical powers, she may lose Austin. Worse still, they may never get home.

    An upper middle grade fantasy, UNLOCKED MAGIC is complete at 69,000.

  13. Thank you so much for the awesome advice and the critiques! Here's my pitch for my story, The Cursing. Oh and a question, is there a certain length pitches should be?

    In the world of Alfheimr, there lives a race of fallen angels known as the Angeni. They are a people lost to darkness, misguided by evil spirits called the Ancients. One misstep or wrong action can lead to death or worse -- a sacrifice to the blood thirsty beings -- and no one is safe, not even the Cursed Imperial family. 

    Fifteen-year-old Princess Tatiana is now only two months away from becoming the High Priestess, which means everything to a girl who has never left the inner sanction of the Temple. Her life has been shrouded in lies and deceit for as long as she can remember, but now, the truth is finally starting to come out. And it must; her life, freedom, and her people people depend on it. 

    Suddenly, a dream and a forbidden encounter with her half-sister Minora change everything, and Tatiana is faced with more questions than ever before. She becomes restless, curious, and bold. Bold enough to risk her life to leave the temple early, bold enough to meet the Faerie her sister prophesied about, and bold enough to take on not only her kingdom, but the Ancients themselves. All in the name of freedom and love. 

    Yet will love be strong enough to save them?

  14. Are we allowed only one critique? If you wouldn't mind it, I'd love another critique on a different pitch. If not, that's totally okay. Thanks! For my other story, Night Lies:

    In the futuristic city of Legacy, seventeen-year-old Xander Fetcher lives in one of the richest cities in the world. He is ready to embrace his destiny as the youngest person to ever have won a Skywind Tournament.

    In Legacy, every child, twelve to eighteen, is required to attend the Academy where they learn what they are to do later in life. Everything is decided, to who they marry from what job they have. To graduate, one must pass a series of dangerous- even life threatening- trials.

    But on the night of Xander's graduation, their president, Idris Nayan, is murdered and nearly half the city dies in what seems to be a planned attack . What’s worst is that all fingers point to Lieu Sparrow, the girl Xander hopes to marry- and Lieu is no where to be seen. On top of that, the last person to see her just happens to have been Xander.

    Now Xander must run from the authorities, clear not only his name but Lieu's as well, and find out who ordered the attack. But in the city of Legacy, some secrets are better left hidden.

  15. Thank you so much Elle. Very kind of you to give us your time. Here is my query:

    15-year-old Samantha Young has nowhere to go when her father, a Chinaman, perishes in a blaze that consumes their dry goods store and leaves her an orphan. So when the richest man in St. Joseph, Missouri, offers her lodging in his hotel, she takes it. Only it’s not a hotel, but a brothel.

    When he attempts to ‘test out the goods,’ she bashes him with a scrubbing brush. Now she faces the noose. The law in 1849 will not side with a Chinese girl, even if she killed in self-defense.
    She flees west with Annamae, a runaway slave. They disguise themselves as young men and join a trio of cowboys bound for the California gold rush.

    The unburned half of Father’s life savings is flying down the Oregon Trail with his business partner. If she could recover the money, she could start the language school Father always dreamed of. Maybe it’ll make up for not returning in time to rescue him, all because she wanted to show him how much she hated his plan to move them to the barren west coast. Now if she can only catch the partner before the law catches her . . .

    GOLDEN BOYS is an 83,000 word historical YA fiction novel that follows Samantha’s journey from girl to adult (with a stint as a boy) through the frontier of a changing society.

  16. Great post! Query letters are my nemesis.

    Elle, I know I'm probably late to the party, but I'll post the query I've struggled with the most, just in case you're able to get to it for your blog post on Tuesday.

    Yesterday, Collette’s biggest challenge was trying to be a good wife and mother.

    Today, this stay-at-home mom is condemned to be a pawn in a coup d'état among immortals.

    A secret society of immortals has sworn to protect humanity, but a power-hungry traitor among them wants to take control. After he sees a photograph of Collette, the traitor orchestrates her abduction from her family. Just her luck, she resembles the current ruler’s lost love.

    The traitor uses her to trick the current lord of the immortals into breaking one of their highest laws. Lord Gabriel, a good and honorable man, doesn’t know of her role in his impending downfall.

    Now, she must take sides. Which immortal is more likely to allow her to return to her family, her captor or the man she’s unintentionally setting up for destruction?

    Along the way, Collette dies—twice.


  17. I just love how you make your point. Very simple yet effective.


  18. Kierra M. T.12/08/2011 1:21 AM

    Hi! You're awesome for doing this. I am a big fan of Clockwise. :D Even my friends are! :D

    I hope you could do mine. :D

    ‘A seventeen year-old fairy godmother trainee gets a new assignment: The hottest GUY at school. Easy, right? Wrong.’

    Magically poofing in somebody’s bathroom while that somebody is taking a shower is not the best way to start off a friendship—that, Remy learned the hard way. After screwing up her previous mission months ago, Remy, a teenage fairy godmother trainee, gets another assignment. And it’s not just another assignment: She’ll be having a MALE ‘godchild.’ To make it worse, he is the school’s hottest guy, a.k.a. Kyle Hughes. Oh, and let’s not forget that she had a major crush on him since, like, forever.

    But when she magically appeared in his shower, everything went wrong. He hated her, he called her a pervert, he was convinced that she was deranged and mentally-retarded, and he didn’t want her help at all. But with Remy’s wish to have a full-on career as a certified fairy godmother at stake, she’ll do just about everything to find Kyle’s happily ever after, even if it did involve quite a few tricks, snakes, broken magic wands, more of her famous screw ups, nasty witches who are out to get her, and her heart breaking.

    Question is: What about her happily ever after?

    Well, with her magic wand and her awesome poofing skills, anything is possible—NOT.