Pub Rants

Category: queries

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!

Building The Pitch Paragraph (Part Two)

STATUS: I’m okay. I didn’t accomplish as much as I had hoped today but I think I’m always overly optimistic after I’ve been out of the office for a couple of days on what actually can be completed in one 9 hour day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? BABY GOT BACK version by Richard Cheese

I can’t help but share my excitement. My revamped Pitch presentation was a huge success—and I don’t mean because the participants “liked” it. Part of the hands on exercise was having audience members rewrite their pitch paragraphs right there in the workshop in 9 sentences or fewer. Then I asked volunteers to share their new pitches aloud.

I was (and I’m sure other members of the audience were too) blown away at how good the pitch paragraphs were when the writers focused on the trigger event that happens in the first 30 pages to shape their pitches.

There was lots of clapping, foot stomping, and cheers. We must have heard about 8 different revised pitches and if those paragraphs had come to me in an email query letter, I would have requested sample pages.

And judging by the audiences response, they would have read sample pages too!

So onward. On Friday I talked about backstory as a way to develop the pitch around the trigger event.

Today, let’s talk about supporting plot elements. Straight from my power point presentation, I used Linnea Sinclair’s back cover copy for THE DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES as a great example of how other story details can help shape the pitch.

In this steamy, suspenseful new novel from RITA award-winning author Linnea Sinclair, a dangerously sexy space commander and an irresistibly earthy Florida police detective pair up to save the civilized galaxy…but can they save themselves from each other?


Bahia Vista homicide detective Theo Petrakos thought he’d seen it all. Then a mummified corpse and a room full of futuristic hardware sends Guardian Force commander Jorie Mikkalah into his life. Before the night’s through, he’s become her unofficial partner—and official prisoner—in a race to save the Earth. And that’s only the start of his troubles.

Jorie’s mission is to stop a deadly infestation of bio-mechanical organisms from using Earth as its breeding ground. If she succeeds, she could save a world and win a captaincy. But she’ll need Theo’s help, even if their unlikely partnership does threaten to set off an intergalactic incident.

Because if she fails, she’ll lose not just a planet and a promotion, but a man who’s become far more important than she cares to admit.

Step One: Identify the plot catalyst.
The detective finds a mummified corpse and a room full of futuristic hardware that shouldn’t exist. This brings Jorie, the outworlder, to the planet. (Outworlders he doesn’t know exist, by the way.) This happens in the first two opening chapters and allows the rest of the story to start to unfold.

Step Two:
This cover copy is going to use other plot elements to shape the pitch further. We find out that Theo becomes her partner and prisoner (plot elements).

We discover what Jorie’s actual mission is (to destroy the zombies) because we need the context for those Zombies (which aren’t your usual walking dead). Plot element and part of the world building.

Then we find out yet another plot element—if she succeeds she’ll be rewarded with a captaincy—so stakes are high for her to make this mission work. And gives us a sense of the urgency and possible tension. What is she willing to risk if she fails?

So this is yet another way to build that pitch project. And yes, you can use a combination of the three I highlighted. One person in my workshop did a great job with a combo but I don’t have that pitch to share. Sorry.

Tomorrow we’ll tackle using character elements to build that pitch.

Building The Pitch Paragraph (Part One)

STATUS: Just added the finishing touches to the workshop presentation.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WICKED GAME by Chris Isaak

Of course I’m doing this workshop for Chicago Spring fling (an RWA chapter) so all my examples have a strong romance and women’s fiction leaning at the moment but it’s a great way to kick off this segment.

Once you’ve identified your plot catalyst that occurs in the first 30 pages, then you are ready to start building the rest of the pitch paragraph that will be in your query letter.

In looking at the back cover examples in my presentation, it’s clear there are three different ways to build the paragraph around the plot catalyst:

1. The back story that sets the story and creates the context
2. Contributing plot elements that will broaden the story
3. Character elements that are imperative to the story.

Pitch paragraphs can either focus on one of these elements to make it strong or a combination. I’ll give you three examples from my presentation and if I can get creative next week, I’ll try and grab examples from literary fiction and other genres.

So in my presentation, I offered the back cover copy of PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS as a good example of how the back story can be used to build the teaser paragraph.

The perfect marriage… Exquisitely planned.
Flawlessly executed.

And a complete disaster.

To all of London society, Lord and Lady Tremaine had the ideal arrangement: a marriage based on civility, courteousness and freedom—by all accounts, a perfect marriage. The reason? For the last ten years, husband and wife have resided on separate continents.

But once upon a time, things were quite different for the Tremaines…When Gigi Rowland first laid eyes on Camden Saybrook, Lord Tremaine, the attraction was immediate and overwhelming: she simply had to have him. But what began in a spark of passion ended in betrayal the morning after their wedding—and Gigi wants to be free to marry again. Now Camden has returned from America with an outrageous demand in exchange for Gigi’s freedom—a proposal that defies propriety and stuns his wife. For Gigi’s decision will have consequences she never imagined, as secrets are exposed, desire is rekindled—and one of London’s most admired couples must either fall in love all over again…or let each other go forever.

Step 1: identify the plot catalyst

In this paragraph, the plot element that will launch the story forward is that Gigi would like a divorce so she can remarry and Camden makes an outrageous proposal in exchange for granting it.

This does indeed happen in the first 30 pages of the novel.

Step 2: Now let’s analyze the rest of the paragraph. This is a great example of how back story will shape the “pitch.” If you look at the first paragraph, we as readers need to understand that Gigi and Camden have an ironic perfect marriage as they live in separate countries. Then we get a hint of what caused the estrangement.

Once that is established, the current event or the plot catalyst that starts the story is revealed. We get a hint of what they must face in order for it to resolve.

There really isn’t a focus on the characters or other plot elements in the story and yet, it’s strong copy (or at least I think so). Not too much is revealed but enough intriguing hints to make us interested in reading on.

Plot Catalysts For Your Pitch Paragraph

STATUS: I’m leaving for Chicago today so it was a little frantic trying to get ready to leave town again. Sorry for not blogging yesterday.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHERE ARE YOU GOING by Dave Matthews Band

I’m going to take a stab at sharing the “hands-on” exercise with you online. Obviously this is a lot easier to do while giving the presentation in person but what the heck. Let’s see how well it translates.

So here is the first step in identifying the plot catalyst that starts the story forward so you can identify it for yourself in your own novel.

What’s interesting is that the first step is something that actually can’t be done during the presentation itself so all you blog readers will have a leg up on this.

Before writing your pitch paragraph for your query letter, I strongly recommend that you take the time to visit your local bookstore or library in order to peruse the shelves for recently published novels that are in your genre and in the same vein as your story. In other words, if you write historical romance, go and read the back cover copy of historical romances in your time setting. If you write epic fantasy, go and look at epic fantasy back cover copy, etc. If you write contemporary literary fiction, pull out some of the latest offerings in that realm.

I think you get the picture.

But here’s the next step. I want you to read the back cover copy. Get a feel for it. Then open the book and read the first 30 to 50 pages. Then go back to the cover copy. Is there a plot aspect that is highlighted in that copy that occurred within the first 50 pages? What was it? Did you notice it while you were reading?

Let’s say you write non-epic fun fantasy and you are shaping your query letter pitch blurb so you head to the bookstore and pick up Lisa Shearin’s MAGIC LOST, TROUBLE FOUND. If you did, here is what you would read in the back cover copy:

My name is Raine Benares. I’m a seeker. The people who hire me are usually happy when I find things. But some things are better left unfound…

Raine is a sorceress of moderate powers, from an extended family of smugglers and thieves. With a mix of street smarts and magic spells, she can usually take care of herself. But when her friend Quentin, a not-quite-reformed thief, steals an amulet from the home of a powerful necromancer, Raine find herself wrapped up in more trouble than she cares for. She likes attention as much as the next girl, but having an army of militant goblins hunting her down is not her idea of a good time. The amulet they’re after holds limitless power, derived from an ancient, soul-stealing stone. And when Raine takes possession of the item, it takes possession of her.

Now her moderate powers are increasing beyond anything she could imagine—but is the resumé enhancement worth her soul?

In this cover copy, can you spot the plot catalyst?

It starts in the third sentence. Her friend Quentin has stolen an amulet, one of limitless power (hey it’s fantasy!). Once Raine takes possession of it, she’s in a heap of trouble—especially because it’s enhancing her powers. She is becoming something other than your average seeker making a living.

If you read MAGIC LOST, Raine coming into possession of the amulet does indeed happen within the first 30 pages of the novel.

Now the sequel from Ace, ARMED & MAGICAL, is hitting shelves this week. Because it’s a sequel, the cover copy reads just a tad differently:

My name is Raine Benares. Until last week I was a seeker—a finder of things lost and people missing. Now I’m psychic roommates with the Saghred, an ancient stone with cataclysmic powers. Just me, the stone, and all the souls it’s ingested over the centuries. Crowded doesn’t even begin to describe it…

All Raine wants is her life back—which means getting rid of the stone and the power it possesses. To sort things out, she heads for the Isle of Mid, home to the most prestigious sorcery school, as well as the Conclave, the governing body for all magic users. It’s also home to power-grubbing mages who want Raine dead and goblins who see her as a thief. As if that’s not enough, Mid’s best student spellsingers are disappearing left and right, and Raine’s expected to find them.

Lives are at stake, goblins are threatening to sue, mages are getting greedier, and the stone’s power is getting stronger by the hour. This could get ugly.

But here’s what I want to point out, the catalyst that starts this sequel is the fact that the student spellsingers are disappearing—which, wait don’t tell me, happens within the first 30 pages of the story.

So it doesn’t matter what type of genre you write, you are looking for the plot element (the event) that will launch the story. This is often easier to find in genre fiction but it still works for literary fiction.

Next up, taking that plot element and deciding what to include along with it. As I mentioned in my blog pitch workshop entries, back cover copy runs only 7 to 9 sentences long.

And that’s your goal for nailing the pitch paragraph in your query letter.

Workshop Epiphany

STATUS: I’m blogging before 7 pm! It’s a good day then. And great suggestion to make my own evals. I’m hoping I can squeeze that in before I leave on Thursday.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHADOW OF THE DAY by Linkin Park

If you are a long time blog reader, y’all know what my workshop epiphany was because I blogged about it for weeks on end (or that’s how it felt like). Probably felt that way to you readers as well! Scroll down the right hand column of my blog until you see Agent Kristin’s blog pitch workshop links. That’s it.

Here’s what happened. I had just given the workshop at RWA (I think it was there) when I realized that I kept repeating to writers that they should make their pitch paragraphs read like the back cover copy of book you’d see in the bookstore or library.

And that got me thinking about how I write my pitches to editors. That got me to my realization that I almost ALWAYS use the catalyst that starts the story, which can be found within the first 30 pages of the novel.

I started analyzing various back cover copies of already published books in a variety of genres and yep, that proved to be true for the cover copy that publishing houses tend to use (with a few exceptions where details from later in the book were also added to the cover copy). The focus, however, was always on that main catalyst that starts the story forward.

By the way, the catalyst is always a plot element—not a character aspect—although back cover copy usually includes character elements as well.

So now I’m revamping my eQuery workshop PowerPoint slides to encompass this. I’ve also moved forward (in the presentation) the hands-on exercise on how to identify the plot catalyst from the opening 30 pages. Then how to craft the paragraph around that element with lots of good supporting details that will give the pitch the most bang for your buck.

Okay, is it geeky of me to be rather excited about trying out this new format for the workshop? Chicago Spring Fling participants, get ready because you are my next guinea pigs.

Reading Queries

STATUS: I did a lot of client editing this weekend. I’m actually going to leave the office early so I can concentrate at home on editing the next one in my queue. I only have three others after this one but my goal is to turnaround stuff within 2 weeks. It’s definitely been more like 3 and ugh, when it stretches to 4, then the guilt is tremendous.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DON’T FEAR THE REAPER by Blue Oyster Cult

Last night I finished up an edit for a client manuscript and didn’t quite have the gumption to dive right into the next project as it was already after 9 p.m. Truly, it helps to be “fresh” when editing.

So I decided to catch up on reading my queries for about an hour (because I’m always the weak link in reviewing and responding promptly the ones set aside for me to read).

And I know, it sucks that I was tired when I started to review them but hey, that’s not unusual. Agents squeeze in query reading when they’ve got a spare 15 or 30 minutes otherwise it won’t get done.

So yes, I wasn’t at optimum when I read, and here are some things I noticed.

1. I had 120 queries to review as it had been almost three weeks since I had checked my review folder to read what Sara had set aside for me. By the time I had whittled the pile down to 40 email queries remaining, I was fighting the glaze factor. What is the glaze factor? The point of diminishing returns in reading. When I’m fresher, I read better and if I find a query confusing, I’m willing to muddle through and figure out what the writer might be attempting to say (although I usually still just pass). When the glaze factor hits, doing that becomes harder. It’s not that I won’t reread the query, because I will. I’ll stop, shake my head, start from the beginning. However, if I’m still glazing over after the first paragraph and struggling to figure out the query’s storyline, I’ll give up.

I highlight this just to reiterate how important it is to nail that query letter. When I hit the point of diminishing returns and I read a really solid, well-written query, it’s almost an auto yes to ask for sample pages because I’m just so pleased I didn’t have to work extra on it.

And just another FYI—the glaze factor can hit SF&F queries harder as I find writers will often ramble about world building in their queries. Short, succinct, and well done should be your mantra.

2. I’m not fond of queries that sound like the novel is simply a recipe. Add a dash of an intriguing hero mixed with a pinch of a sarcastic heroine (or what have you as I’m making this up). I find that it doesn’t let me evaluate the story of the query very accurately so I often just pass on asking for sample pages. I do try and guess what I think the story would be but I’d just rather the writer described it without the recipe gimmick. I realize this is a personal preference and other agents might feel quite differently.

You Know You Have A Tired YA Fantasy Theme When…

STATUS: I had a great time listening to pitches that had a horror element to them and so different for anything I’ve looked at lately. It’s so rare to have 18 pitches and only three women in the mix. What a different mix-up so I’m enjoying World Horror.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TOMMY THE CAT by Primus

Tonight I had dinner with fellow blogger and YA fantasy editor Stacy Whitman from Wizards of the Coast.

When you get an editor and an agent together, talk turns to submissions as we are wont to do. And you have to remember, we like to talk shop and even though we might highlight some tired themes in our conversation, any fresh twist on it can change our mind in a heartbeat.

Dinner conversation kicked off with a moment of understanding that it’s really hard to carry off a YA novel where a monster eats a child in the first chapter.

On one hand, it’s immediate conflict. On the other, not sure where the story can go from there….

But here’s our dinner list. You know you might have a tired YA fantasy theme when:

1. Your main protagonist is the “chosen one” and only he or she can save the world.

2. You have a lost magical amulet and that search alone is driving the story.

3. When your main protagonist is waking up and getting ready for the day in the opening chapter.

4. If you have to go through the portal to actually begin the story.

5. If your Mom & Dad are dead (and on top of that, they are dead wizards or something similar) that the protagonist must live up to.

And I would have added, you know you have a tired YA fantasy theme when your characters are on a quest but Stacy says she’s still game for those stories (albeit a little tired of Vampires because she can’t see how a writer might pull of an original story in that realm at the moment).

TGIF. I’m out!

No Reply At All

STATUS: Finally getting around to blogging today.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? CALLING ALL ANGELS by Train

It’s the end of the era, and I have to say it makes me a little sad. Today Sara and I decided to no longer respond to query letters sent to us by snail mail. As much as it pains me to be one of “those” agencies that doesn’t respond to writers, it just doesn’t make sense to spend the time, the resources, and sacrifice the poor trees to kindly mail people a letter that informs them that we only accept inquires electronically.

We have done everything in our power to make the information of how to submit to us as widely available and easy to access as possible—both on the web and via print mediums.

Most things sent to us over the snail mail transom don’t remotely fit with what we clearly state we are looking for and it’s time to stop wasting paper, ink, and manpower on responding. From the ones we have received in the past, it’s obvious that the writers who haven’t contacted us via our submission guidelines are not researching and targeting us specifically.

From this day forward, anything received via snail mail goes into the recycling bin that is picked up every other month by our shredding service.

But if you send that query by email, we do read each and everyone that comes in and we do respond (although we can’t guarantee that a reply will reach you as we are often foiled by spam filters etc.)

So save that tree. Go electronic.