Pub Rants

Category: pitch blurbs

Kicking Off The New Year–Courtney Milan’s Query

STATUS: And what a way to begin. I read some sample pages over the weekend and today I requested a full manuscript. Just like that. Let the yearly tally begin!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ANGEL by Simply Red

And what better way to start the New Year then by helping y’all with that strange and frustrating (but sometimes wonderful) thing called the query letter.

In the past, I’ve done numerous blog entries on the original query letters sent to me by authors who became my clients. [See the side bar: Agent Kristin’s Queries—An Inside Scoop.]

I haven’t done that in quite a while and voila, what better way to kick off the year. So first up is Courtney Milan. Let me give you a little history since this query letter came through via a recommendation from my current client Sherry Thomas.

Basically Sherry had read the opening chapters, loved them, and then sent me an email that I needed to check out Courtney’s work asap. Funny enough, I had gotten the email from Sherry right before a conference where Courtney had already scheduled to meet me in person to give her pitch.

This is pretty rare but based on Sherry’s recommendations and Courtney’s wonderful in-person pitch, I requested the full manuscript right then and there. When she sent us her novel, here is the letter she sent along with it.

I’m sharing because had she simply sent me a query letter with this same info, I would have asked for sample pages and now I’m going to share the ‘why’ of it with you.

My comments in blue.

Dear Ms. Megibow:
I met Ms. Nelson this last weekend at a pitch appointment at the Chicago Spring Fling conference. She had spoken with Sherry Thomas earlier about my historical romance, PROOF BY SEDUCTION. Ms. Nelson asked me to send you the full, which is now attached.

As one of London’s premier fortune tellers, Jenny Keeble knows all about lies. After all, the fastest way to make money is to tell people what they want to hear. [Okay, at first I thought the whole fortune teller angle was a little contrived but she puts a different spin on it with her insight of how well it works in terms of telling people what they want to hear. It struck me right away that this author might be using this plot set up for a different purpose. I was right.] It works–until Gareth Carhart, the Marquess of Blakely, vows to prove what he and Jenny both know: that Jenny is a fraud. [Loved this!]

Gareth only wants to extricate his naïve young cousin and heir from an unhealthy influence. The last thing the rigidly scientific marquis expects is his visceral reaction to the intelligent, tenacious, and–as revealed by a wardrobe malfunction–very desirable fortune teller. [I’m completely won over here. Courtney does a great job of outlining the opening plot catalyst that launches the story (removing the heir from her clutches), of giving character insight (rigidly scientific marquis), and adding an amusing touch with the wardrobe malfunction line. I sense this work is going to be witty and it doesn’t disappoint.] But she enrages him. She tempts him. She causes him to lose his head entirely and offer a prediction of his own: He’ll have her in bed before the month is out. The battle lines are drawn. Jenny can’t lose her livelihood, Gareth won’t abandon logic, and neither is prepared to accept love. [The crux of the conflict neatly explained. Also, her use of the words “enrages,” and “tempts” leads me to think it will be sexy and I kind of like that in historicals.]

I am a finalist in Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart competition for unpublished romance. I currently work as a lawyer …[bio info deleted by Courtney’s request] My romance writing interests may seem rather different from my daily writing, where I focus on law issues. But all good lawyers are, at heart, just story tellers, and I find the two writing practices balance each other.Please feel free to contact me if you have any additional questions, and thank you for taking the time to consider my manuscript.

Sincerely,
Courtney Milan

This novel plus a second book sold for six figures to Harlequin at auction. Tomorrow I’ll share the submission letter I sent to editors so you’ll see my pitch for this novel. I find that can also lend some insight into the query process.

Straight From A Reviewer’s Mouth

STATUS: Back to back conferences are a bit tough. On Sunday I flew back from San Francisco and RWA. Today, Worldcon began right here in Denver. On one hand, I didn’t have to travel to attend. On the other, I might be a little conferenced out but away we go.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? YOU’LL NEVER FIND ANOTHER LOVE LIKE MINE by Lou Rawls

As I mentioned above, Denvention 3 began this morning and I kicked it off with one of the opening sessions on how to create that perfect pitch paragraph in a query letter.

No, I’m not going to beat that almost dead horse again. All you blog readers are pretty much experts by this point.

But one of the session attendees was Jacqueline Lichtenberg, a writer and a reviewer. She added a comment to the panel mix that I thought was well worth repeating. She said that for her job as a reviewer, the back cover copy of any given published novel becomes absolutely essential in terms of deciding which books to actually review. Publishers send her so much that she has stacks and stacks of books just waiting for her attention.

A quick skim of the back cover copy makes her decision on which book to read and review. Go figure. The same technique applies when agents read query letters. If you make your pitch paragraph read like back cover copy, you’ll get attention. But that isn’t the tip I want to share.

From her position as reviewer, Jacqueline recommended that aspiring writers not wait to write their pitch paragraphs or what they would consider their own back cover copy for their novels. She suggested doing that even before the novel is complete. Even, dare I say it, before the novel gets written!

If you can write good back cover copy for the novel you have in mind, your writing will be forced to live up to the copy you’ve created.

I think this is a great idea—especially for writers who are kicking around several ideas and are contemplating which idea to pursue in terms of writing a novel.

Write the back cover copy (in the way it would look if the novel were actually be published) and that alone will force you to focus on that essential plot catalyst that will drive your story forward and force you to focus the novel.

Not a bad day’s work….

Building The Pitch Paragraph (Part Six Redux: Ysabel)

STATUS: I’m beat. I just can’t stay up until after midnight without consequences. Makes you wonder how we did it in college all those eons ago.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? CANDY EVERYBODY WANTS by 10,000 Maniacs

I think I can officially call my work done here. You guys don’t need any more lessons on pitch paragraphs. You’ve got this nailed. It’s so easy—until it’s your own work, right?

Step One: Find the plot Catalyst
It’s pretty easy to spot in this one. It’s in the second paragraph when Ned & Kate surprise an intruder with a knife in a place he should not be. Cryptic warning ensues!

Step Two: Identify what method is being used to build the paragraphs in the cover copy?
Paragraph one is mostly back story (why they are living in Aix-en-Provence) and a little bit of hint in terms of Ned’s character with the reference to inheriting his mom’s courage.

Paragraph two highlights opening plot elements and then the catalyst.

Paragraph three is setting actually. Not something I’ve really talked about much in relation to pitch paragraphs. Here, setting the mood is rather important to the story so the copywriter juxtaposed the modern with the old to capture that this story has a timeless element to it.

Paragraph four is about how the setting relates to the other plot elements that will unfold. We are in a place where the border between the living and the dead is suspect. This means something from the past is going to be able to come into the present and if this copy is any guide, that’s not going to be a happy thing.

Step Three: Analyze the copy as a whole.
So this copy is 8 sentences. A lot going on in those 8 sentences. You can see where it pays to chose wisely the details to include.

Building The Pitch Paragraph (Part Six: Ysabel)

STATUS: So it’s after midnight, which should tell you how my day went. And is this Tuesday’s entry or Wednesday’s?

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DESERT ROSE by Sting

Okay so we didn’t have much luck analyzing the cover copy of THEN WE CAME TO THE END as we couldn’t find it online. Tonight (or this morning), let’s try a title where the commenter provided the cover copy for me. What can I say? I get lazy when I’m tired.

Are you ready? This one has elements of many genres so it should be fun.


From Guy Gavriel Kay’s YSABEL:

Ned Marriner is spending springtime with his father in Provence, where the celebrated photographer is shooting images for a glossy coffee-table book. Both father and son fear for Ned’s mother, a physician for Doctors Without Borders, currently assigned to the civil war-torn regions of Sudan. Ned has inherited her courage, and perhaps more than that.

While his father photographs the cathedral of Aix-en-Provence, Ned explores the shadowy interior with Kate Wenger, an American exchange student who has a deep knowledge of the area’s history. They surprise an intruder in a place where he should not be: “I think you ought to go now,” he tells them, drawing a knife. “You have blundered into a corner of a very old story.”

In a modern world of iPods, cellphones, and SUVs whipping along roads walked by Celtic tribes and Roman legions, a centuries-old saga seems to be beginning again.

In this sublime and ancient corner of the world, where borders between the living and the long-dead are most vulnerable, Ned and those close to him are about to be drawn into a haunted tale, as mythic figures from conflicts of long ago erupt into the present, changing and claiming lives.

Step One: Find the plot Catalyst

Step Two: Identify what method is being used to build the paragraphs in the cover copy?
* Back story?
* Other plot elements?
* Character?
* Combo?

Step Three: Analyze the copy as a whole.
How many sentences is it? What elements make up each individual paragraph? What seemed effective and why?

I’ll check back in tomorrow (or today) so we can discuss.

Foiled By Whether This Is The Back Cover Copy Or Not

STATUS: I’m really swamped right now so pardon yesterday’s radio silence.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? UNBELIEVABLE by EMF

So we haven’t analyzed back cover copy for about two weeks now. With that in mind, I thought I would pull up my list of suggested examples culled from the comments section for this blog entry.

I’ve been hearing the buzz (which has been around for a while) for the National Book Award winner THEN WE CAME TO THE END and since it was suggested, I thought it would make a good choice.

But I’ve literally just spent the last 20 minutes on Amazon.com and BN.com looking for the flap copy (if you are talking hardcover). This could also be the back cover copy for a trade pb but sometimes publishers decide to use that space for quotes instead (thinking that would be more powerful to sell the story).

On Amazon, all I could find were reviews. Clicking on a variety of “search inside” features didn’t get me to the flap copy or to the back cover where a blurb might be.

On BN.com, there is a synopsis listed. This may be the flap copy or back cover copy but it’s more of summary than what, traditionally, back cover copy or flap copy tends to be.

The Tattered Cover online has this same snippet listed as the description.

Here it is:

No one knows us quite the same way as the men and women who sit beside us in department meetings and crowd the office refrigerator with their labeled yogurts. Every office is a family of sorts, and the ad agency Joshua Ferris brilliantly depicts in his debut novel is family at its strangest and best, coping with a business downturn in the time-honored way: through gossip, pranks, and increasingly frequent coffee breaks.

With a demon’s eye for the details that make life worth noticing, Joshua Ferris tells a true and funny story about survival in life’s strangest environment–the one we pretend is normal five days a week.

I have to say that I’m not sure this little snippet would have sold me on picking up, buying, and reading this book. The reviews on the other hand made my book club interested in at least including this book title in our next vote.

Not sure what point I’m making but if this is not the book copy and the actual copy is noticeably absent from the websites, it does rather de-emphasize the importance of that marketing tool.

Still, I think back cover copy is valuable as a learning tool for writing query pitch paragraphs. Perhaps my real point is to say that online sites have more room to offer a variety of written info about a novel to the reader beyond the back cover copy. And in fact, maybe enticing back cover copy is less important than reader and professional reviews.

It’s an interesting discussion…

Building The Pitch Paragraph (Part Five Redux—INTERPRETATION OF MURDER)

STATUS: Ready for sleep.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHAPE OF MY HEART by Sting

It’s obvious to me that you guys have got this down. If you look in the comments section, everyone got the catalyst right off—Freud arriving on American soil at the same time as one rather gruesome murder and another attempted murder.

You also got that the Publisher was playing off of what they assume the general reading audience would already know about Freud.

Not to mention the “Sherlock Holmes” type set up in the language of the blurb sends some clear signals about what the reader can expect. Hence, the short and pithy pitch. In the Publisher’s mind, no extra details were needed to hook the reader (and some of you might disagree with that) but for the most part, it’s going to be effective.

By the way, the pitch used all plot details to build the paragraph. There are hints of character because of what we know in our heads about Freud but the reader is bringing that to the pitch. Character-building itself is not actually present; it’s all plot details.

My work is done here. Go forth and write awesome pitches for your novels.

I do have some more examples culled from that previous comment string but I’ll just intersperse them in here and there in future blog entries for the next couple of weeks. It just gets boring after awhile to do too many in a row.

Building The Pitch Paragraph (Part Five—INTERPRETATION OF MURDER)

STATUS: Why am I blogging at 10 p.m. at night? Because I’m nuts, that’s why!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHO WANTS TO LIVE FOREVER by Queen

Now I find it interesting that back cover copy is often hard to find on both Amazon.com and B&N.com. The sites will often list reviews, personal commentary, even a bit of a synopsis but the back cover copy is often missing. In fact, sometimes you can’t find it unless you use the Search Inside feature so you can see flap copy or the like.

Considering how much time is spent on the pitch—by aspiring writers, by the agent when it comes time to sell it, by the editor who is pitching it to ed. board and then to sales reps at Sales Conference, and then reps to the booksellers, both these online sites almost eschew using the copy…

What am I saying? I don’t know. It’s too late to really analyze what I’m saying but it’s interesting to note.

And today’s entry was a must in light of the terrific news I get to share. My author Hank Phillippi Ryan has won the 2007 Agatha for best first book for her debut mystery/women’s fiction hybrid PRIME TIME.


How cool is that? Out of all the mysteries published last year, only four were nominated and she won. And in even cooler news, MIRA is going to rerelease this title, plus the second book and two other new books in the series for some Summer 2009 back-to-back fun.

So this leads me into an example for a genre that I don’t really represent but I have to say that if I had gotten a query letter with this kind of pitch blurb, I would have said to heck with what I rep, this sounds like something I want to see.


The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

On the morning after Sigmund Freud arrives in New York on his first – and only- visit to the United States, a stunning debutante is found bound and strangled in her penthouse apartment, high above Broadway. The following night, another beautiful heiress, Nora Acton, is discovered tied to a chandelier in her parents’ home, viciously wounded and unable to speak or to recall her ordeal. Soon Freud and his American disciple, Stratham Younger, are enlisted to help Miss Acton recover her memory, and to piece together the killer’s identity. It is a riddle that will test their skills to the limit, and lead them on a thrilling journey – into the darkest places of the city, and of the human mind.

Okay, you know the drill. Find the plot catalyst. Then analyze what is used to build the pitch paragraph.

There is certainly an economy of words with this example. Four sentences total. Hit me with it and then tomorrow we can talk about it. Does it work? Why?

We could also talk about whether it doesn’t but for me, that’s not really all that important. If it doesn’t work for you, then you won’t be picking up this book nor if you were an agent, would it be up your alley either. This biz is all about personal opinion after all. Not much to learn from that. However, the publisher believed this short, and to-the-point copy would work. It’s up to us to try and figure out why as we demystify the pitch.

Building The Pitch Paragraph (Part Four Redux–INK EXCHANGE)

STATUS: TGIF and I’m totally rockin.” I finished a requested changes letter for one contract and I’m tackling another. I might be out of here before 6 tonight!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TIDE IS HIGH by Blondie

Okay, you guys are going to hate me for pointing this out but it’s true. Those who commented had different opinions on the effectiveness of the cover copy used for INK EXCHANGE.

Some thought it would make you pick up the book. Others thought that it was too vague and general.

Yep, you’re starting to think like agents. This is why the biz is so subjective. This is why your query pitch will often work for one agent and not another. We all have different opinions and tastes.

Still, trying to make your query pitch read like the back cover copy of the book is worth doing. Why? Because the cleaner and sharper it sounds, the better chances you’ll have to win an agent’s attention—because we are used to reading back cover copy. The rhythm, the strategy, it speaks to us.

So no, even if you totally rework your query pitch to read like back cover copy that doesn’t mean it will be effective 100% of the time because what agents like individually will vary.

But I guarantee that agents will probably read the pitch twice and hesitate over it. I can’t prove it but I think if copy reads well, that alone gets our attention. Even if the storyline doesn’t float our boat per se.

Plot Catalyst
You guys did a great job on this cover copy. All of you spotted the catalyst right away: Leslie getting the tattoo sets the stage for the rest of the story to unfold. I’m willing to bet this occurs in the first 30 pages of the novel, but I haven’t read this book yet so I don’t know for sure. If anyone has seen an early copy, feel free to verify whether that is true or not.

Supporting Detail to Hone the Pitch
This is a combo of back-story (for paragraph 1) and character development with a little hint of other plot elements (paragraph 2). So all three were used.

Paragraph 1 is all back-story. Chances are good the copy editor chose this as INK EXCHANGE is a sequel to a previously published book. We need a sense of what happened in book 1 to orient us for this novel.

Paragraph 2 starts with character element. We get a sense of Leslie’s need for something different in her life. In fact, we think she might be desperate for that change. The last two sentences of that paragraph highlight some other plots elements that are going to be crucial to the story. She’s going to be bound with Irial and drawn in to the faery world.

Since he’s on the dark side (nod to paragraph 1 for that info about his ruling the “dark” court), we can make some assumptions. Words like “sinister” help with this. This bonding, this being drawn in could have dire consequences.

Now, several of you complained that it was too vague. Not enough details. Remember, you only have so much space on a back cover copy. You also might not want to give too much of the surprise, twist, or the storyline away.

Your pitch is just a teaser. Although there is room for a bit more detail, it may or may not always be necessary. And opinions will always vary from person to person.

You can’t worry about that (otherwise that would drive you crazy). Just worry about making the pitch paragraph as enticing as possible using the methods we are outlining here.

Building The Pitch Paragraph (Part Four–INK EXCHANGE)

STATUS: Oh it’s late one tonight! I did two long phone conferences today and was determined to finish a contract. I didn’t leave the office until after 7 pm.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TAKE ME I’M YOURS by Squeeze

Consequently, I didn’t get a chance to read through the list of fabulous suggestions you guys posted for me. I will; I promise. For tonight, I literally just grabbed the first example in the comments section.

This has the added benefit of being the back cover copy for a work represented by an agent friend, Rachel Vater at Folio Literary Management.

And since we are taking about friends, I just found out that another agent friend Janet Reid (and yes, I do know everyone in the biz—just kidding), is doing query letter critiques at a new blog site called Query Shark. Serendipity so go check it out.

And I just discovered that a writer I was contemplating taking on but had mixed feelings about just signed with another agent friend and although it may sound strange, I’m thrilled to see an obviously talented writer with my friend. Writers often think that agents are in cutthroat competition with each other and yes, there are a select number of agents out there who think and operate that way but for the most part, we can be sincerely glad for each other.

But back to Rachel’s author Melissa Marr and just released INK EXCHANGE.

Here’s the cover.

Here’s the copy:

Unbeknownst to mortals, a power struggle is unfolding in a world of shadows and danger. After centuries of stability, the balance among the Faery Courts has altered, and Irial, the ruler of the Dark Court, is battling to hold his rebellious and newly vulnerable fey together. If he fails, bloodshed and brutality will follow.

Seventeen-year-old Leslie knows nothing of faeries or their intrigues. When she is attracted to an eerily beautiful tattoo of eyes and wings, all she knows is she has to have it, convinced it is a tangible symbol of changes she desperately craves for her own life. The tattoo does bring changes- not the kind Leslie has dreamed of, but sinister, compelling changes that are more than symbolic. Those changes will bind Leslie and Irial together, drawing Leslie deeper and deeper into the faery world, unable to resist its allures, and helpless to withstand its perils…

Step One: Find the plot Catalyst
Okay, tonight I’m not going do it for you. I want to see the plot catalyst mentioned in the comment section. Tomorrow I’ll take you through the copy.

How are you going to learn if I do all the work for you?

Big smile here.

Step Two: Identify what method is being used in the cover copy?
* Back story?
* Other plot elements?
* Character?
* Combo?

Step Three: Analyze the copy as a whole.
How many sentences is it. Take a look at each individual paragraph. What seemed effective and why?

You can also mention if something didn’t seem effective to you and why but I don’t think that is as instructional as trying to figure out why the publishing house chose this for the cover copy.

Building The Pitch Paragraph (Part Three)

STATUS: Honestly I tried to do my tasks first but I had so many phone conferences, by the time I was done with them, the emails had piled up. I am making good headway on a contract right now though.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THE HEINRICH MANEUVER by Interpol

Time for looking at Character elements in your pitch paragraph. So far none of my blog readers have offered back cover copy for me to analyze. I’m kind of surprised. I’d be happy to look at some copy for different genres and break it down for the reading audience.

That way I would tackle some genres not touched on even remotely so don’t hesitate to do that today.

But back to my presentation. I used Leslie Langtry’s GUNS WILL KEEP US TOGETHER as an example of a character-built pitch paragraph.


“Irreverent, witty and fun…a wild, adventurous ride!”
—New York Times Bestselling Author Katie MacAlister
on ’Scuse Me While I Kill this Guy

Dakota Bombay prided himself on his blond Bond image—bad-guy killer by day, lady-killer by night. Then his life gets both shaken and stirred by an irate grandmother demanding a marketing plan for the family assassination business, a precocious six-year-old son Dak never knew he had, and a mysterious redhead who’s erased his decades-old preference for blondes.

Suddenly the perennial playboy is knee deep in pie charts and thinking he may have found the perfect mom for his boy. She’s smart, funny, and directs a funeral home no less—what could be better? Now if he can just take out a team of rival assassins without getting killed himself, they can all live trigger-happily ever after.

Step One: Spot the plot catalyst
In this cover copy, it’s the grandmother and the unexpected arrival of a six-year-old son that’s going to push this story forward.

Step Two:
This cover copy is all about character. First we find out what Dakota is like—the blond Bond bad boy. That’s the image he’s always had. This establishes the character.

The second paragraph is a hint of what he’s going to have to become—a corporate business head and then a father which isn’t in keeping with the bad boy image. Not to mention there is a reference to the love interest (that will also be a departure for this character).

The last sentence wraps up in another plot element but for the most part, this pitch is all about character.

Now throw me some other examples and let’s take a look at them!