The Types and Importance of Queries

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Queries. Pitches. Synopses. Three words that strike fear into every author’s heart. And rightfully so — selling your book to an agent or editor depends on your ability to encapsulate your story’s heart into a few simple sentences. For most people, that’s a nearly impossible challenge. But perhaps if we look at why this practice is necessary, it will help you understand how to do it. So, I’m going to show you what I look for in a query. Keep in mind that these are solely my opinions, and other agents or editors may look for something else, but if you plan to follow along with #REUTSsubs in the near future (I’m currently working on resurrecting that feature), this will give you a glimpse at the thought process behind my decisions.

Let’s start by looking at the three potential ways you go about introducing your work to an agent or editor. They are:

  1. The Traditional Query Letter & Synopsis
  2. Pitching in Person
  3. Elevator Pitches on Social Media

All three serve the same purpose — hooking your audience into asking for more. That’s a phrase I’m sure you’ve all heard thrown around in writing seminars, but what does it actually mean? In essence, it means you break through someone’s focus enough to grab their full, complete attention and get them to react. In other words, it’s a sales tactic.

Now, I know many of you just groaned. Sales is about as far from writing and creativity as you can possibly get. But the truth is, publishing is a business. There are bottom lines to be met, production costs to worry about, returns on investments that have to happen, etc. So when you send in a proposal (which, let’s face it, is what these things really are — sales proposals), what you’re really doing is arguing why we should become your business partner for this venture. And you’d darn well better be convincing. Don’t you think?

So, how do you achieve that? What makes a sales proposal appealing to the potential buyer? How do you turn indifference into “OMG, yes, I must read this”? Well, I look for a couple of key ingredients:

  • Interesting concept and premise
  • Unique attributes
  • Market potential

That’s it. Every time. Seriously.

Whenever I’m reviewing a pitch/query/etc, I ask myself the same three questions:

“Does this make me excited as a reader?” (This is more of a visceral reaction than a true question. Basically, I’m looking for that internal pique of interest, that “oooooo” factor.)

“What makes it different from everything else in its genre?” (The more specific the better on this front. Diverse cast? Unique twist or angle on the familiar? New setting?)

“What is it similar to/where would I put it on a shelf?” (This is ultimately the most important because it tells me A: where it fits within the REUTS catalog, and B: where it fits in the larger market and who its readership might be.)

All right, now let’s look at how you apply that insight, shall we? Because each type of pitch listed above is a slightly different opportunity to sell your work, and you shouldn’t use the same blanket strategy for each.

The Traditional Query Letter & Synopsis

First off, a query is not a synopsis and vice versa. They’re two separate entities used to achieve the same goal, but one is the lead singer, and the other is the band. You need both, but they serve completely different roles in the process.

Your query letter should be no more than 3-5 paragraphs, and its sole job is to pique the reader’s interest. It has to fit that criteria I listed above. It needs to give just enough information for me to tell whether or not it could be a fit for REUTS. So focus only on the most important aspects — the conflict and stakes that drive your story, sprinkled with a little info on the world/character and just a hint of what makes your manuscript different from the rest. Give me the heart of the tale; I don’t care about the rest yet.

Other things I need to know are genre, target audience, and comp titles (comparable books that might bear similarity to yours). Genre tells me where it fits in the bookstore and who it might appeal to, target audience tells me who I’m going to get to read it, and comp titles give me an instant snapshot of what to expect in terms of feel/tone/theme/style, etc. (One caveat on choosing comp titles: aim for ones that aren’t genre heavy-hitters, but that are prominent enough I’m likely to have heard of them. Also, the more unique the mash-up, the quicker I’ll be able to pin-point my expectations as reader.)

And that’s it. 3-4 paragraphs should easily be enough room to capture all of that, once you isolate the key things an agent/editor looks for. Your final paragraph should be about you, what you bring to the table in terms of experience, etc. Honestly though, most of the time, we kind of skim that info. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it to us, just that more weight is placed on the content of the story than your particular pedigree.

IF you’ve achieved your goal and hooked my interest, I’ll dive right into the sample pages (because a great pitch does not always mean great execution), and if those pass the quality test, I’ll check out the synopsis. A synopsis is a glorified outline. It tells me the highlights of your story in 1-3 pages. It should capture the emotions, the main conflicts, some of the character motivations, and the entire narrative arc. The details of your world, sub-plots, supporting cast, etc, aren’t as important; the structure of your overall story is.

Manage to hold my interest through all of that, and guess what? You’ve just earned a full manuscript request. (I’m pretty sure this is the process most agents/editors go through, but some of the particulars may vary a little.)

Pitching in Person

Ah, now, this is a whole different game — one part speed dating, one part American Idol audition, all rolled into a giant ball of anxiety for everyone involved. But it’s a very viable option if you have the chance. Out of 55 total pitches I heard at the Willamette Writers Conference last summer, I requested samples (and even some fulls!) of 48 manuscripts. The idea behind this is much the same as the process above, except you only have 4-10 minutes, if you’re lucky, and have to talk to an actual person. Terrifying stuff, for sure.

So what’s the key in this scenario? Be a human. Don’t stiffly recite your memorized query letter while you stare at the table. Engage with us! Take that query you wrote above and hone it even more. In a 10 minute pitch session, your pitch should take up no more than 2-3 minutes, max. Give us the bare bones, the core of your story, and then let us come to you. Think of it like baiting a wild animal; you don’t give away the whole dinner up front, you toss out some crumbs and lure us into the trap. Or, in other, less poetic words, give us time to ask questions.

A face-to-face pitch session should feel more like a conversation, and every agent/editor will hone in on something different. So leave yourself room to answer those questions. If you don’t, and you babble through all 10 minutes, you might end up not getting a request at all. Because that tidbit in the middle that you glossed over? Yeah, that was the one thing that agent/editor was looking for, and you didn’t give them time to find that out.

Your mission in an in-person pitch is simply to get that business card (See? American Idol golden ticket, right?) and a request to see more. That’s it. You’re not going to be signed on the spot, and you’re not going to give us your entire book on a silver platter. It’s simply the first step to a longer conversation.

Elevator Pitches on Social Media

Have you guessed the reason behind this order yet? It’s because they get progressively shorter and shorter. Much like pitching in person, an elevator pitch on social media should comprise the basics of your story. It should only contain the hook, the thing that is most likely to get people to stop and say “ooo, that sounds good.” You have 140 characters, so every letter has to count. Which is why you really only want two things (aside from genre/audience): the stakes/conflict, and what makes your story different. Again, you’re not trying to cram your whole book into 140 characters; that’s madness. You’re only trying to get us to want more. Which is why including that unique-factor is crucial.

To win this round, all you have to do is get a favorite from one of the stalking agents/editors, which then results in a submission of what? The first type of pitch: a traditional query letter and synopsis. It all comes back around to create a massive circle of Submission Hell.

But there you have it, a breakdown of both why pitching is necessary and my particular thought process for evaluating them. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that this article originally appeared on the REUTS Publications blog, and I have syndicated it here for a couple reasons. One, I realized I have yet to actually talk about queries over here, and I hate trying to rewrite something I’ve already written. And two, I wanted to bring that blog to your attention, in case you didn’t know we had one. As the Acquisitions and Editorial Director for REUTS, it’s my sometimes job to add helpful articles and info over there too, specifically in regards to a post series titled Adventures in the Slush Pile, which will showcase the query/response process in real time. So if you’re a fan of #tenqueries on Twitter, that might be something you’re interested in. And if not, then don’t worry. I’ll syndicate some of the more helpful articles here as well, when time and permissions allow.

Until next week, happy pitching! 😉

2 thoughts on “The Types and Importance of Queries

  1. This is super helpful! I have done a ton of the traditional query letters for some short stories I have written, but I have yet to pitch a novel. Is there any difference between pitching short pieces vs. long ones?

    • Good question! I don’t know that I’m the best person to ask, since REUTS only accepts novel-length work and I’ve never had to query a short story with this style of submission, but my thought would be no? Same ideas would apply, I’d think, but you’d need a synopsis for a longer work. I don’t know that you need those when querying a shorter one, do you? Anyway, in terms of the actual query letter, they’re likely very similar — intro, story-related info, personal info, etc.

      I think just going into it with the mindset of a salesperson helps. You’re pitching a product. What would get you to buy said product? Answer that question and you should be fine for figuring out how to compose your query. 🙂

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