Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pitch Your Fiction Book in a Query Letter

Guest Post by Douglas Clegg

If you're an aspiring writer the game of getting published seems hard. No one really tells you what to do, and as games go, the publishing game seems mysterious from the outside. Agents and editors both are busy, and to get your book or story across, you need to capture their attention quickly so they'll take a second look and want to read your finished book or partial.

You can improve your chances in having your book -- or books -- seriously considered by a publisher or an agent by creating a winning query letter.

This is my current tip for aspiring novelists that I hope will help you cut through the confusing clutter of advice about pitching your novel -- whether in a query letter to an agent or an editor, or if you actually get to meet an editor and sit face-to-face at a convention or other gathering.

I know how rough it can be, particularly when starting out. Believe in yourself, in what you write, and keep learning the craft.


1. Do not go on and on in your query. No matter how wonderful you are, and no matter how fascinating it is to you to describe hundreds of pages of your novel in loving detail -- it's boring. Accept it and move on.

It's the reading of the book that needs to be engaging and engrossing, and the only way an agent or editor may get to that is if your synopsis in your query letter is engaging, too.

2. Do not suck up. Seriously. No kissing of the derriere will sell your novel to any editor or agent, even if it works with your boss.

On the other hand, don't insult 'em either, obviously.

Be direct, respectful, and as brief as you possibly can (but make sure you get across the gist of what's great in your novel.)

All right, here goes.

This was part of a letter I sent to an aspiring novelist who asked about the query. It includes two "off the top of my head" synopses of novels of mine put in the form that I believe it is good to think about.

Do not imitate what I've written. Get the SPIRIT of it.

Your book has got to sell itself. The best you can do is pitch it, and step out of the way so your novel can work its magic on the editor or agent.

Having said that you absolutely need to make your story come alive in a few sentences. I can't do that for you, but you can.


Imagine you have less than a minute to tell your friend about a great movie you just saw, or a terrific book you just read. In fact, pick one that you loved.

Describe it quickly, on paper. I bet you can do this in under a minute. If you can't, then practice, practice, practice.

Find out what is unique and compelling in your book and put that into a few sentences.

Work on it.

Cut, shape, and take ten minutes afterward to make sure these sentences work.

The premise of your novel needs to be strong enough to be summed up quickly -- otherwise, it stands a chance of sounding like a muddle or a series of abstractions that can't find anything concrete to rest upon.

Plus this synopsis has to be interesting. And brief.

If you really want this book to sell, you have to be tough on this kind of stuff and make the leap to professionalism.

It's simpler than you suspect.

If your novel has a strong premise, and you understand this premise (as you should -- you had to believe in it enough to write an entire novel, right?) whittle those words down to three to six sentences that are compelling and at least tell what's most important about the story:

Think in terms of the big picture.


Here's an example for my novel Bad Karma, written under my pen name Andrew Harper:

"A beautiful, murderous patient of a psych hospital for the criminally insane is obsessed with the psych tech who cares for her. When he and his family vacation on Catalina Island off the coast of California, she goes on a rampage and escapes to hunt them down -- because she believes that he is the reincarnation of a lover from her past life -- Jack the Ripper. This is a fast-paced thriller dealing with reincarnation, human madness, and murder -- set at both a psych hospital as well as on Catalina Island, with flashbacks to 19th century London with the Jack the Ripper scenes."

THREE SENTENCES. Admittedly, two of 'em are a bit long. But not all that long.

And you know what? When I look at those few sentences now, they're not perfect -- I know that. But they convey the story briefly, and if an editor or agent isn't interested in seeing the book, they'll know in under a minute and can move on with their lives.

And so can I.

By the way, that book sold in under 10 days to a NY publisher, and was later picked up for the movies (admittedly, it was made into a very bad movie, but the check was good and the popcorn tasted great.) I later sold two sequels, as well.


Another for my recent novel, The Priest of Blood:

"In this tale of swords, sorcery, and vampires, a boy grows to manhood in a brutal medieval world. Rising in his station through his talent as a falconer, he falls in love with the baron's daughter -- but when their love is found out, he is forcibly conscripted into the Crusades. There, despairing of life, he seeks death -- and finds his destiny as a messiah of vampires in the bloody embrace of a female vampire called Pythia.

Filled with ancient buried kingdoms, battles against the Saracens, as well as a quest for a legendary Priest of Blood who will bring power to this falconer, this is the first book of a proposed dark fantasy trilogy called The Vampyricon."

FOUR SENTENCES. I bet you're so smart, you could whittle these down further, couldn't you? You're smart, I know! You get a gold star for smarts.

Bear in mind, I'm a novelist, not a short-order copy writer.

I don't expect to have written deathless prose in the query. But, as you can see, this gets the gist of the story across.

I did not sell this query, by the way, because I wrote the novel before selling it and already had an agent. I'm not trying to present this as "Only THIS will sell in a query letter."

I want to give you a sense of how simple this is -- but keep the secret to yourself!

Just kidding.

Truth is -- what piques the interest of an editor or agent is what will pique MANY readers' interest, too. Editor and agents are looking for...wait for it: what people will want to read, as well as what they believe they might want to read, per the taste of the editor or agent.

It's their business, and they know what they're looking for and sometimes are surprised by what they didn't think they were looking for.

I can't spend my life second-guessing them, and neither can you. All I know is what fascinates ME -- and I've learned how to convey that fairly quickly and simply. But it takes a bit of practice. Nobody says you can't practice first.

BUT you can learn to get your story or plot premise down in a brief synopsis and get on with your next novel while you wait to hear back.

And you thought I was going to tell you how to write the entire query letter for a novel?

Nope, but there are books for that. I can't tell all my secrets at once!

However, my QUICK TIP!

Just write a regular letter as you would to anyone at a company where you wanted to:

(a) not waste their valuable time on unimportant things and

(b) get a job.

This involves being respectful, not whining, demanding, threatening, or appearing pitiful. It also involves self-respect, if that wasn't apparent from my previous sentence. Double-check your spelling and look for grammatical errors.

I make errors all the time, and it's oh-so-easy to go back and revise before sending the query off. Admittedly, I leave typos in these notes just so I can hear from those among you who love pointing out errors to people.

Here's a basic query letter for a novel:

"Dear _____,

My name is _____________, and I've written a novel of _______ words that fits most comfortably in the genre of ____________. It's called ___________, and I would very much like to send it to you for possible publication/representation.

____________ is a story of...(and here's where you write that 3-5 sentence synopsis that includes the basic premise, a brief highlight or two, with the idea that you're telling the story to a buddy as if you just saw a really great movie.)

I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your time and consideration.



I know some might argue that this wouldn't work for literary novels, but I don't know: if you want to believe that, feel free. Life is short, and in the long run, you can do what you want.

Thus, endeth my lens for the day. Please link to this, and let your writing friends and writing groups know about it. Heck, argue over what I've written here -- but if it works for you, I'm glad I could help.

If it doesn't help you, go forth and find something that does. Disagreeing with me will get you nowhere, but finding out what you need to do will get you everywhere.

Please check back -- now and then, I'll add more tips and suggestions from the writing trade.

Copyright 2006, 2009 Douglas Clegg.

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  1. Very thoughtful and enlightening. TY for the tips. I don't dread the synopsis so much or the query letter now. Onwards and upwards!

  2. It is great to see that what I've learned recently holds true. Short and sweet does the trick.

    I am confused, though, on your examples of a "synopsis". They seem to be more like jacket copy or extended tag lines (everyone has different terminology). They're great, don't get me wrong, and exactly what I've always wanted to do and have done at times, but it's my understanding that when an editor/publisher asks for a "synopsis", they want a detailed 3-10 page (on average) synopsis or summary of the work--like New York Times bestselling author Lisa Jackson teaches on her site.

    If your examples are more acceptable nowadays, I am totally for it. I think a synopsis should tease and intrigue and lead to a request for a full manuscript. Or not.

    In fact, I believe I'll send my condensed synopsis to a publisher that recently asked me for one. :-)

    Thank you for sharing your expertise! I truly appreciate it.

    Cheryl Kaye Tardif,
    Canadian suspense author

  3. Cheryl - we're talking 2 different synopses here. The synopsis I'm talking about is something brief to include in the query letter when you're querying agents.

    I may be wrong, but I believe you're talking about the synopsis that an agent wants once they are interested in seeing more from you.


    Douglas Clegg


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