Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

After 200 Webinar Pitch Critiques…

STATUS: ! I think that exclamation point says it all.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? ISN’T IT ROMANTIC by Rod Stewart

I can unequivocally give my blog readers the #1 culprit of why pitch paragraphs in adult or children’s SF&F query letters miss.

Drumroll please….

Convoluted plot that can’t be followed in the pitch paragraph.

Interestingly enough, in the presentation itself, I gave the missing plot catalyst as the# 1 reason for why we pass. Convoluted description of the plot was #3. I might have to revise that!

Post webinar, most participants got the concept of “inciting incident” or main plot catalyst pretty clearly; it was building the rest of the pitch paragraph that proved tough. I think everyone who submitted a pitch to be critiqued got a sense of just how hard it is to create a good one.

A bit of advice? Your pitch is not something you want to go it alone on. You need feedback and from a variety of sources. If you learn nothing else from that session, take that tidbit away with you.

And because I’m a nice person, I’m going to share my Top 10 list for blog reading edification.


Reason 10: Generic descriptors of the story

Reason 9: Overkill on World Building details and not enough about the story itself.

Reason 8: Explaining that unlike already published SF&F novels, your work has character development

Reason 7: Popular trends (such as Vampires, Werewolves, or Zombies) with no unique take clearly spelled out in pitch

Reason 6: No mention of or insight into the characters who will be driving the story

Reason 5: The manuscript is 250,000 words (or more!) and this is unpublished, debut author

Reason 4: The work is called SF&F but it sounds more like a mystery or thriller or something else.

Reason 3: Convoluted Plot that I can’t follow in the pitch paragraph

Reason 2: SF&F stereotypical archetypes as the “hook”
–the mysterious object
–the unexpected birthright
–the quest
–the villain that has risen again
–exiled to another planet
–mayhem on spaceship to new planet
–Androids with heart of gold
–The main character as the key to saving the world or species
–the just discovered talisman

Reason 1: No hook—or mention of a plot catalyst that is new or original in this genre

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39 Responses

  1. Natalie Aguirre said:

    Thanks for sharing the list. I was at the Webinar and received a very helpful critique from you or Sara. I totally agree that the pitch paragraphs are extremely difficult to craft right. I know mine’s not there yet and I have spent umpteen hours on it. But I’ll keep working on it until it’s right. Feedback from you and my critique partners will hopefully help get it to where it won’t get a rejection.

  2. Bran Flakes said:

    Slightly off topic… I have a question about Reason #2.

    Kristin just listed the top 9 tropes of the genre. Take unexpected birthright for instance. Off the top of my head: Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Rand al Thor, Belgarion, Bella Swan (her blood) etc. Take mysterious object. Again, off the top of my head: Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Lyra Belacqua, Richard Rahl (who actually falls under the birthright category as well…)

    My point, or question, is: Kristin, are you telling us to NOT use those plot devices whatsoever? Or are they alright as long as there is an original angle to the story, like you stress in Reason #7?

    Because if no author should use those tropes any longer, that would almost be the same thing as creating another genre…

  3. Dakota Pratt said:

    Oh no – my young adult SF has both “The main character as the key to saving the world or species” AND androids with hearts made of varying materials!

    Shucks. What if I add a few more inciting incidents? Say, like, five? Then I should be better off, right?

    Kidding… mostly.

  4. Post Toasties said:

    I’m with you, Bran Flakes. If you throw out those tropes, that’s a huge chunk of the genre — past, present, and future. Maybe what she meant to say was she doesn’t want to see those tropes done poorly? Not sure.

  5. lac582 said:

    My take on it is it’s not about whether those tropes are present, but rather if they are being pitched as the story’s main *hook*. If there’s nothing compelling to lift the story beyond the ‘I’ve seen this before’ elements, then your story won’t feel fresh.

    To take the Harry Potter example – I would bet the editor at Bloomsbury who did pick it up did so more based on things like Wizard School(!) than the idea that Harry was both special and orphaned (more familiar aspects).

  6. Anonymous said:

    Number 2 just cut your submissions in SFF down by about 80 percent.

    Not that I agree with it. Plenty of room for artistic variation there.

  7. Lindsay Buroker said:

    I participated in the webinar, and it was a great experience. Thanks for critiquing all of us, Kristin and Sara!

    Now if you’d just be kind enough to offer a webinar on SF&F synopsis writing, I could get my package together and start querying in earnest. *g*

  8. Anonymous said:

    Thanks to Kristen and Sara! The comments I got back were so helpful. There’s nothing like knowing what an agent is thinking as they read your work. Invaluable!

  9. Phoenix said:

    Kristin, I hope you don’t mind a promo plug here, but since you mentioned writers need feedback from a variety of sources, I thought maybe we could help out with links for those who are disconnected from the greater community.

    There are lots of terrific critique sites out there and most everyone has a crit group to provide feedback. However, for those who don’t have a support group and don’t know of one, may I recommend Evil Editor? He can be a bit brutal and he goes for the jugular to wring out some laughs for the critique, but the advice is spot on AND everyone’s query gets critiqued in a fairly timely fashion unlike other sites such as Query Shark. In fact, Evil Editor just recently put out a call for queries to critique as his queue is getting low.

    Plus (or instead if his humor is a bit too intimidating for you), once you revise based on Evil Editor’s advice and the feedback of his Minions, he tosses the revisions my way and you can continue the workshopping over at my site, where I offer line edits and rewrites. We also workshop the occasional synopsis.

    Feel free to lurk at either site for a bit. Reading through other queries and critiques is educational in itself.

  10. Dan said:

    I attended the webinar, and I was guilty of No. 10 in my world building. What really killed the pitch, though, was a reason not on the list: I wasn’t nearly as descriptive or specific as I needed to be. For my MC’s arc and motivations, I gave the “what,” but neglected the “how” and the “why”.

    Thank you, Kristin, and Sara, too, for this wonderful project. Without it, I’d surely be getting rejection after rejection without knowing exactly what was wrong.

    Any webinar you do in the future, I will be there for.

  11. Anonymous said:

    I’m in real trouble then. My manuscript is over 1,600,000 words in total and has more than just one or two main characters. But damn, I enjoyed writing it.

  12. B. Jenne' Hall said:

    Received my pitch paragraph feedback today and it was incredibly helpful. So glad I did this workshop — between the workshop itself and the pitch critique, it was invaluable. I still have hours ahead of me to improve my pitch/query, but at least now I have a better idea of where to focus my attention. And you’re right: crafting a standout query is one heck of a challenge!

    Thanks so much for your time and for the detailed critique. I would participate in another workshop from you in a heartbeat.

  13. Liesl said:

    Bran Flakes, I think the point is that those tropes will always be present an enjoyed in SF&F, expected even, but it’s difficult to put a fresh face on them in your book and even more difficult to make it sound original in a condensed form such as a query or synopsis. No easy feat. I’m sure it’s possibly a reason why Harry Potter was rejected several times along with many other great books that went on to sell very well.

    I think the key is infusing the voice of your work into your query so it feels original. Just my two cents.

  14. Shayda Bakhshi said:


    Back to the drawing board. 😉

    No, really–this is great. I have the worst time writing queries, and this DO NOT DO list is great, because I’m getting ready to query for my YA fantasy.

  15. Jen Zeman said:

    I am SO glad I was able to get my pitch paragraph critiqued – the advice received was invaluable!! Trying to capture the essence of the story in 12 sentences is no easy feat! I’m happy I did well for the first paragraph – need to go back to the drawing board for paragraph two.

    Question Kristin (if you can answer) – should we name other major characters in the query? I was thinking about doing this but felt if I did it would become too convoluted.

    Again, thank you for your time with the critiques!

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  17. Eileen said:

    As to point 2 of course these will continue in this genre, but using them as the way to describe your book is where they fall flat. For example, if I tell you my book is about Harry who discovers he has secret powers and must save the world from the ultimate evil, is there anything in that line that sparks your interest? Nothing about that feels fresh or new. The challenge and head beating on the desk bit is how to have a fresh take on the old.

    It would be the same as querying your romance novel as boy meets girl, boy loses girl and surprise, boy gets girl back.

  18. Kirk K said:

    You provided fabulous information in the webinar and your query critique was right on.

    Like Dan, I suffered from vague details in my 2nd paragraph. It’s a tremendous help to receive this type of feedback.

    I’ll be working on nailing down the query as I wrap up my novel.

    Thanks for everything.

  19. Kristin Laughtin said:

    Oh, this is going to be such a useful checklist for me! I’ve got a couple of practice queries written and I think I’ve avoided making the plot paragraph too convoluted, but it took a few tries in some cases. The book I’ll probably query first seems pretty good by these standards; the closest I probably come to failing is having a main character seem like the key to saving the world. He’s important, but the book makes it clear he’s just one of many who could fulfill that role, and that realistically it probably wouldn’t depend on one person. I just have to make sure the query doesn’t make it sound like he’s the key!

    Thanks for this analysis.

  20. Laurie said:

    Many thanks, Kristin, for the class and the critiques. I presume those of us who haven’t heard back yet will hear soon? I’m actually amazed you got all 200 done this quickly! Wow! ^_^

  21. Agent Kristin said:

    Just a post to say that
    lac582 nailed it: “My take on it is it’s not about whether those tropes are present, but rather if they are being pitched as the story’s main *hook*. If there’s nothing compelling to lift the story beyond the ‘I’ve seen this before’ elements, then your story won’t feel fresh.”

    That was point exactly and I mentioned so in the workshop. You can have these tropes in your novel–they just can’t be your hook in the pitch.

  22. John said:

    I really appreciated the opportunity to get my pitch critiqued. It was nice to know what worked and what didn’t–I had a hunch already–but how to make it work could have eluded me for months.

    Thanks again!

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