Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Guest Post: Dear Agent -- Write the Letter That Sells Your Book

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Query letters. Except for the synopsis, there's no more dreaded task a writer has to undertake.

How to boil an entire book down to a short pitch that not only provides an accurate snapshot of the work, but makes a literary agent (or a publisher) want to see more? This is incredibly difficult--not just because crafting good pitches is a hard thing to do in general, but because in many ways, writers are the worst judges of their own work. They're just too close to it.

Fortunately, author Nicola Morgan is here to help. In this week's guest blog post, she offers clear, practical, and just plain terrific advice on how to craft that all-important "hook."

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Dear Agent -- Write the Letter That Sells Your Book
A guest post from Nicola Morgan, aka the Crabbit* Old Bat
(*Crabbit = “grumpy, prone to being irritable”)

Dear Writers,

Call me weird, but I love writing one-paragraph pitches and always do it before I start writing a book. It helps me focus on the core and stay on track.

Oh, and don’t worry: I have no intention of being “crabbit” with you. After all, I’m a guest here, and it would be very rude. Besides, you are all sensible writers, looking for the best way through the publishing jungle, so there’ll be nothing for me to be crabbit about, will there?

Let’s talk about how to pitch your book.

First, there’s one difference between the UK and the US when it comes to querying agents: in the UK, it’s easier because the initial letter accompanies a longer synopsis and sample chapters; in the US, your query letter is on its own. But how we actually pitch the book in the letter is the same, because it’s all about making someone want to read it. A lot.

And, wow, do writers sometimes mess this up! (I bet I made many of the same mistakes in my 21 rejection years.) So simple in theory, the query is full of traps which can make you appear arrogant or ignorant and make your wonderful book seem dull, derivative, confusing or in some other way utterly lacking in “must-read” factor. I have seen some ouch-making faux pas in the letters agents show me.

In your letter, you’ll also need to sell yourself, show that you’re up to this task of being a modern published author, that you’re professional, informed, ready to engage with your public rather than scaring them off, confident without being arrogant, and about as far from a nutcase as it’s possible to be.

But today I’m not going to talk about selling yourself. I am focusing on the crucial paragraph that sells your book. The hook. I want to show you how to hone it into a thing of such sharpness that it will be even sharper than the toes on my purple boots. That’s sharp, believe me.

I admit it’s not easy. I think the difficulty comes because we are too close to our own work. You know when someone asks what your book is about and you take a deep breath and start to say what it’s about; but you can’t stop because you think of more and more and more things that it’s about and all of them seem so fantastically important that you just can’t stop? And so you say more. Because how can your beautiful, rich, multi-layered book be reduced to a paragraph? Butchery!

Trust me on this: no one wants to listen to a rambling explanation or outline. They want to know one thing: does this book sound like something I want to read? An agent wants to know that plus two other things: a) is this the sort of book I can sell and b) does the pitch make it sound as though this is not just a good idea but also a satisfying whole? For that, the best pitch is short, sharply-focused and recognizes what makes a book sound compelling.

I’ll suggest a method and then some guidelines.

My method: start with something even shorter than a paragraph. A maximum twenty-five word pitch.

How to create that 25-word pitch: 

(Note: these steps are a framework not a strait-jacket. Adapt if necessary. For non-fiction omit 1 and 2 and decide what your book is about and who it’s for.)

1. Take your main character (MC) and give him/her an epithet – eg vengeful divorcee, desperate aspiring author…
2. Identify the MC’s central mission/problem/fear and what he stands to lose if he fails.
3. Brainstorm words and phrases that your book conjures up, including themes, moods, actions.
4. Pick the 25-30 that sound most compelling.
5. Pick the 5-8 of those that sound even more compelling then the others.
6. Fashion those ingredients into a tight, heart-tugging 25-word pitch.
7. Include wolves.

OK, I’m joking about wolves. Well, I’m not completely joking: if there are wolves in your story, they must be in your pitch. Why? Because wolves are exciting, heart-tugging, mysterious and emotional things that we want to read about.

But what if your book has no wolves? Well, there are dozens of other things that tug heart-strings: sex, power, fear, obsession, madness, lust, love, pain, loss, grief, tigers, magic, witches, horses, corpses, poison, murder, torture, betrayal, struggle, disability, terrorism, war… You get the picture? Focus on the must-read factors of your book. Make up for the absence of wolves.

Here are a couple of examples of 25-word pitches that I hope work:

Lizzy Invisible (middle-grade WIP): Overshadowed by her seriously-ill brother and super-talented sister, Lizzy feels invisible. Imagine her shock when she discovers that she’s literally vanishing…

Mondays are Red (YA): After a coma, a talented runner finds his world terrifyingly altered. Synesthesia brings him corrupting power; he must resist, to save someone he loves.

Of course, they are not enough, and they omit much that is important, but the point is: they are the place to start.

So, you’ve got your 25-word pitch. Next, swell it to a paragraph by elaborating on that “must-read” core.

My guidelines follow. It’s hard to create guidelines that apply to every type of story, so do adapt at least 1 and 2. Again, for non-fiction, use common sense and omit points that don’t apply.

1. Focus on main plot only. (Obviously, if you have a dual story, or similar, you might need to mention both but aim for the minimum.)
2. Show MC’s central mission/problem/fear and what he stands to lose if he fails – and indicate (some) obstacles and journey.
3. Be concrete, not abstract. For example, avoid statements such as, “This is a book about survival” – show us who survives what and how.
4. Give a sense of the tone. For example, for a humorous book, convey this.
5. Do not praise your writing. It is not for you to describe your prose as “poignantly lyrical with flashes of genius”.
6. Stay true to your genre. For example, what might sound compelling in a crime novel may not sound compelling in a romance.
7. Do include a sense of the ending when pitching to agents and publishers. This doesn’t mean you must say exactly what happens, but we need to know something of the resolution.
8. Avoid unanswered questions such as “Does Larry save the world?” “Will Ella ever find love?”
9. Comparisons with other books can work but require great care. They must add something to our understanding of what sort of book it is. “My book is a cross between Twilight and Where the Wild Things Are” is not going to work.
10. Hone, hone, hone – imagine each word costs you $10.
11. Get others to read your pitch – it’s amazing how helpful an outside view can be.

Does that help? There are more tips, actual examples and questions answered in Dear Agent. It’s written from a UK perspective but most of the advice holds anywhere, especially the parts about writing the best pitch for your book.

Thank you so much for letting me pitch up here. (See what I did there?) I hope my British accent hasn’t made you laugh too much! Good luck to you all and I wish you a very fulfilling writing career and lots of happy readers.

Best wishes,
The Crabbit Old Bat

Links for further reading:

Main website: www.nicolamorgan.com
Writing and publishing advice blog: Help! I Need a Publisher!
Ebook taking fear out of writing a synopsis: Write a Great Synopsis – An Expert Guide
Ebook: Dear Agent – Write the Letter That Sells Your Book.
Mondays are Red – Nicola’s original debut YA novel

Nicola Morgan August 2012

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Nicola Morgan is an award-winning and best-selling UK author of around 90 books across the ages, fiction and non-fiction. She blogs about writing, publishing, and everything about being a modern author, at Help! I Need a Publisher! The blog got her a book deal – Write to be Published. She is in touch with many agents and publishers, who regularly recommend her advice to new writers and show her some of their worst submissions. Nicola lives in Edinburgh and is a little bit obsessed by gorgeous boots. And chocolate.

13 comments:

Peter Dudley said...

Wolves. Damn. Who knew?

Seriously, this is the best, most concise, most actionable description of a pitch paragraph I remember seeing.

Kristin said...

I highly recommend Nicola's book, Dear Agent, as well as her book Write a Great Synopsis. It's like having a writing coach - she knows exactly where we get stuck and knows exactly how to show us the way around it. I've found all of her writing books just as valid for the US market. Thanks for featuring her.

One Latina's Pen said...

I'm so glad I read your suggestions before sending out my revised query. Your recommendations are so concise it will make it easy for me to revise again. Thank you Nicola.

Patrick Samphire said...

Hey. I have wolves in my WIP. Sold!

More seriously, thanks. This is a really interesting take on the query letter. I suspect it would also be useful for self-published writers trying to craft a compelling description for Amazon, etc.

Nicola Morgan said...

Patrick - absolutely. In fact, that's a point I make in Dear Agent and in my workshops. I've self-published some books and writing the pitch is almost exactly the same, pretty much the only difference being that obviously you don't tell your readers the ending, whereas an agent does need to know something of that. Hooray for your wolves, btw!

Thanks for your comments, everyone. It's always a bit scary writing for my transatlantic cousins but it keeps me on my toes! I'm glad the advice has rung true for you. Kristin, thanks for your endorsement!

Thank you, Victoria, for letting me come here.

Ken E Baker said...

Great article - and agree with you on point 11 - getting a second opinion from a reader in the target market is even better - as they are the ones who will be picking up the book based on your synopsis on the back cover :)

Maia said...

This a wonderful article, and I'll definitely share it with others. I love the point made about how important this is for self-publishing, too. I don't see any reason at all to go the agent route for my own work, and I'm not the only one. But we all need to learn from this. Some terrible books on Amazon might be avoided if people seriously asked themselves if their work was up to this standard before just putting it out there.

rebeccaklempner said...

Wow. This is the best, most clearly written, helpful explanation of pitches EVER. I feel...empowered!

Crazy Travel Adventures by Debra said...

This is one of the best ways I have come across to write a query. Thanks so much.

Kathy McIntosh said...

Woo hoo! There IS a wolf in my novel. Frozen corpse stuffed in a freezer. Great post, with ideas for pitching readers and bookstores, as well.

Zakgirl said...

I agree with Peter Dudley this is one of the best pitch paragraph's I've seen in recent years too.

This post has given me the desire to write the query/pitch for Angel's Trumpet before finishing the book. Just so i don't go on and on and on about the plot. Great article. Thank you.

Has got me definitely interested in, Dear Agent, which I guess was the purpose of this post *smiles*.

Thanks again,
Zak.

tim watson said...

Really helpful post. Thanks for sharing it.

Liam Cooks said...

This is such a helpful post. Thanks a lot for sharing it.