This past Saturday was the Pitch It Contest at the Fairfield County Writers' Studio with literary agent Marilyn Allen, and writers Tessa Smith McGovern and Carol Dannhauser. A couple friends of mine and I attended to give our first ever in-person pitch.
Now, I must start this off by saying that I am a terrible public speaker. I tend to lose my train of thought when all those eyes focus on me, and my mind goes blank if someone asks me a question. So this was a huge challenge for me, but I thought it would be a good experience - nothing like facing your fears head on, right?
The contest was open to all genres of books in any stage of completion. There were 18 people who pitched their books (including myself) and the manuscripts presented yesterday were about half finished and half incomplete. They served bagels and mimosas to keep our writerly energy up, which was much appreciated. :)
Ms. Allen began by giving some general and helpful tips. She said there are two parts to writing and three parts to a query. The two parts to writing are art and business. I'm paraphrasing, but she said that the art of writing should never be given up, no matter the results of the business end of it - that writing is a joy, a craft and a gift to each one of us. The business of writing is all about promotion and marketing what you've written. (I agree wholeheartedly with her sentiments - if I gave up because of one or two rejections, I wouldn't be where I am today. The writing is what's most important, and the business end of things will follow. Persistence is key - to quote Galaxy Quest, "Never give up! Never surrender!")
Okay, back to the contest and Ms. Allen's advice. To break down the query, the three parts of it are "the hook, the book and the cook." The hook is what draws a reader into the story - what makes the story unique and why someone would want to read it. The book is about one to two paragraphs summarizing of some of the events of the manuscript. And, finally, the cook - why the author is qualified to write the story.
To break down the actual query letter, the first part is the introduction. It should be a personalized note to the agent. It's very important to address it directly to the agent - and make sure that his/her name is spelled right! Ms. Allen mentioned she gets "Dear Agent" queries or ones with her name spelled wrong or group emails to multiple agents, and all of these are a big no-no. Since she receives 200-300 query letters a day, she's basically looking for a reason to say "No" rather than "Yes." So it's great for the writer to start out with a personal connection to the agent, such as meeting her at a conference or even being a fan of one of her clients. And her parting advice on the query introduction: "Flattery is awesome."
Next is the hook. What is unique about your book? It could be the background of what inspired the book - there was one fiction manuscript that was inspired by an article the author read, which Ms. Allen suggested adding to the query as a point of interest that would catch an agent's attention. She also mentioned that there's nothing so powerful as a great title - the title gives the reader the first impression of the book, and if the title is misleading or confusing, it can leave a bad impression. Of about half of the pitches, Ms. Allen suggested title changes after listening to the query and talking with writers about their books. She said that the title should be something easy to find in a Google search. Also, the title should be near the beginning of the letter rather than near the end.
After that is the book. Of the many queries pitched, Ms. Allen suggested most of them had too long of a "book" section. The book is not the same as the synopsis - it shouldn't reveal the entire plot of the story, and there are a lot of unnecessary details, such as subplots, that can be left out. One important question to ask: what transformation does the main character go through?
Last, is the cook. Depending on what type of manuscript you're pitching/querying, this should include some basics about the author. It should include the background education/work experience or relevant publishing credits. For example, if the book is influenced by South African history (as mine is), then it's relevant that I got a BA in African history. If it's a self-help book, then this would be where the author would put his/her marketing plan. Also a growing trend is including social media information, to show that one has an author platform - so if one has a Twitter account with 20,000 followers, then it might be a good idea to include this information. Some other ways to show your platform are a blog, a connection to the community, or if an author does book reviews. Also, end with a good closing - such as an offer to send chapters or a comparison to what books one's manuscript is similar to.
A few last tidbits of advice:
Don't say that your book has "series potential." An agent will already know that this is a possibility if the first book is a success.
A good place to find successful queries? Writer's Digest has a whole list of different queries that landed agents in all different genres.
And if you missed this Pitch It Contest, there is good news! They announced they're hoping on doing another one in the fall, either in September or October. So polish up your pitches, and get writing!
Who the heck is Alison McBain?
I am a freelance writer and poet with over a hundred short pieces published in magazines and anthologies. If the Walking Dead isn't on, I draw pictures and do origami meditation in Alberta, where I live with my family. If the Walking Dead is on... shhhh! The Walking Dead is on! For more info, please check out my "About Me" page.
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