How to Write a Book Pitch and a Query Letter for Literary Agents

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DECEMBER, 2020

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This is a question that I get often from writers with a manuscript ready and starting to query agents: “How do I pitch my book? How do I make a query letter?” When you’re just starting out and know no one who’d been published or feel too awkward to ask, everything sounds ridiculously intimidating. A lot of writers don’t even know what querying is, or that they’re supposed to query to get an agent. There’s a lot of bad assumptions still that all you need to do is send out your manuscript without needing to do the legwork and if it’s good, agents will snap it up. Doesn’t work this way!

I get a lot of questions like these in my inbox, so I figured I may as well make a post to show people how *I* write book pitches and query letters.

Please note that this is MY way of doing so, and not the only way to do it! Feel free to use this as a guide and select the guidelines that best suit your writing style or habits!

I give presentations on local panels and book festivals about this frequently, so I’ll be using some of my powerpoints throughout this post!

To keep things short: a query letter is like your CV or resume that you email to agents, only the resume revolves around a brief summary of what your work is, and why you think the agent you’re emailing is a good fit for it. But before we query, we must first be able to pitch our book!

The Pitch

You may be familiar with a book pitch (aka elevator pitch) when you’ve seen the #DVPit hashtag contests that sometimes happen on Twitter – it’s a book summary that can fit within a tweet that must be interesting enough to get agents’ attention. If agents cannot get a clear idea of what your book is about, then it’s a pass.

I write my book pitches BEFORE I write the books, personally – it helps me know what themes or major plot point I should be focusing early on. A book pitch normally has these:

1. how the story begins
2. main plot / concept
3. any other unique concepts
4. the hook / plot twist

#1 and 3 are not necessary – it helps make your pitch more interesting – but #2 and #4 are very important!

Also important: don’t put the ending of your book or any major spoilers in your pitch!! A hook is different from an ending/spoiler – it’s the most important part of the pitch & shows agents/publishers how your book differs from others! I’ll give you guys examples using my own books

Pitch: 2-3 sentences that summarizes your book (no spoilers, add in a hook); helps you focus on the overarching plot of the book; gives agents and pubs a quick idea of what your books is; it's called an elevator pitch also

A pitch is 2-3 sentences that summarizes your book
– must have a hook, which is different from a spoiler
– gives agents and publishers a quick idea of what your book is about
– also known as an “elevator pitch”

THE HOOK

A hook is usually something about your book that gives off a “gotcha!” moment – the point in the book where the stakes first become evident. It is usually the part in your story where the character faces their first major conflict.

HOW DO I WRITE A PITCH?

It’s always difficult to give specific tips, because every book varies. So I decided to give the pitches I used for my own books as examples, and break down every part of it:

First, THE BONE WITCH:

1. state how the story begins: "A young girl in exile tells a wandering bard the story of"; 2. main concept: "how she joined a magical geisha-like society that hunts down undead monsters after she accidentally raises her brother from the dead."; 3. hook: But as more of her tale is revealed, the bard begins to suspect that her motivations are more sinister than she lets on."

– the full pitch: ”A young girl in exile tells a wandering bard the story of how she joined a magical geisha-like society that hunts down undead monsters after she accidentally raises her brother from the dead. But as more of her tale is revealed, the bard begins to suspect that her motivations are more sinister than she lets on.”

state how the story begins: “A young girl in exile tells a wandering bard the story of –“

main story concept: “– how she joined a magical geisha-like society that hunts down undead monsters after she accidentally raises her brother from the dead.”

hook / plot twist: “But as more of her tale is revealed, the bard begins to suspect that her motivations are more sinister than she lets on.”

Need more examples? Here’s The Girl from the Well:

1. how story begins: "An undead centuries-old ghost who kills murderers."; 2. main story concept: "is drawn to a young boy haunted by spirits"; 3. Unique concepts: "The journey to heal him will take them from America to the secret shrines of Japan"; 4. hook: "Where they will make a terrible discovery: there is something inside the boy, and it wants to get out."

the full pitch: ”An undead centuries-old ghost who kills murderers is drawn to a young boy haunted by spirits. The journey to heal him will take them from America to the secret shrines and of Japan, where they will make a terrible discovery: there is something inside of the boy, and it wants to get out.”

state how the story begins: “An undead centuries-old ghost who kills murderers –“

main story concept: “is drawn to a young boy haunted by spirits.”

unique concepts: “The journey to heal him will take them from America to the secret shrines and of Japan –“

hook / plot twist: “–where they will make a terrible discovery: there is something inside of the boy, and it wants to get out.”

And here’s WICKED AS YOU WISH:

1. main story: "A Filipina team joins forces with a young prince to defend his ailing kingdom; 2. unique concepts: "descended from Maria Makiling" 3. hook: "after his nation's most powerful weapon - a firebird - lands on her doorstep."

the full pitch: “A Filipina teen descended from Maria Makiling joins forces with a young prince to defend his ailing kingdom, Avalon, from the Snow Queen after his nation’s most powerful weapon – a firebird – lands on her doorstep.”

main story concept: “A Filipina teen descended from Maria Makiling joins forces with a young prince to defend his ailing kingdom, Avalon, from the Snow Queen–“

unique concepts: “A Filipina teen descended from Maria Makiling”, “his ailing kingdom, Avalon,”

hook / plot twist: “–after his nation’s most powerful weapon – a firebird – lands on her doorstep.”

You can see that I always use main story concept + hook in the pitch, but NOT always the unioque concepts or even how the story starts. You know your own work best, so change it according to how you feel best works for the story!

For my writing style, knowing my pitch early on helps me write faster. Even if you start writing your book w/o a clear concept yet as to what it’s about, keep writing chapters til you finally figure out your pitch idea, then finalize *that* so it can be your guide for the rest!

THE QUERY LETTER

Here is my query letter that I have actually sent to agents, for THE GIRL FROM THE WELL, which also got me my own agent. I tried to break down every part of this letter and show how the pitch that you initially created applies to it.

I am seeking representation for THE UNNATURAL STATES OF DEAD GIRLS IN WELLS, a 59,000-word young adult psychological horror novel I would describe as The Grudge meets Dexter in the Dark. It is a modern spin on the famous Japanese ghost story, Bancho Sarayashiki (where notable ghosts like Sadako
from The Ring are based on), and I hope this is something you might be interested in.

In the small town of Applegate, there is a dead girl walking – and killing. Her victims are child murderers, much like the man who bound and threw her then-sixteen-year-old body down a well in Japan, three hundred years ago. Unable to move on, she justifies her existence by slaughtering these killers and freeing the spirits of children whose lives they took. But though she spares the innocent out of a self-imposed duty, the living holds little interest for her.

This changes when a fifteen-year-old boy moves into town. She finds herself drawn to his strange, unearthly tattoos, repelled by the apparitions of a woman in black haunting him, and curious by the deaths he seems indirectly responsible for.

But the boy has more connections to the spirit world than either realizes. Soon they are drawn into the world of eerie doll rituals and dark Shinto exorcisms that will take them from American suburbia to the remote valleys and shrines of Aomori, Japan. Here, they will make a terrible discovery:

There is a malevolent, horrific ghost trapped inside the boy – and it is trying to get out.

I have attached the first ten pages of my manuscript as per your agency guidelines.

Thank you for your consideration.

1st paragraph: has book title, word count, genre (psych horror), X meets Y comparison (The Grudge meets Dexter in the Dark), details that an American agent may not necessarily know (based on a Japanese legend, Bancho Sarayishiki)

2nd-4th paragraph: summary of book until the first major conflict (don’t write the book’s actual ending!); note that the beats I used in the pitch has found their way here, including the hook (Here, they will make a terrible discovery: there is a malevolent, horrific ghost trapped inside the boy – and it is trying to get out.)

Last paragraph: This particular agent asks for 10 pages of my book to be attached with the query letter. This will vary per agent so remember to RESEARCH first before sending your letter! Some agents might want 5 pages, others might want 3 chapters, still others might ask for the whole manuscript already. It’s important to abide by their guidelines!

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And that’s how you write it! Let me know if you still have any questions!