This post is all about query letter format, a perennially popular topic that won’t quit! While there isn’t just one query letter format or query letter template out there, I’ve developed a handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.
Query Letter Format
From my recent webinar on query letters, I’ve learned that writers continue to be fascinated with this little one-page document. It’s my most popular webinar by far, and a constant fixture of Google searches about writing.
But what makes successful queries? And can I get a query letter template? Writers are desperate for query letter examples.
When I was speaking at writer’s conferences, I always gave out a handout with a query letter example that I’d written for Twilight. Cue your eye rolls, but it’s a well-known story that everyone has at least glancing familiarity with. (My query letter example is written with Edward as the protagonist because I think Bella is such a wet blanket, ha!)
Writers are also curious to see if there is a query letter template that they should be following for formatting their query letter. Is there a set formula for writing a query and organizing the information? Not really, unfortunately. Even if I was going to call my query letter template the perfect way to write a query, many writers wouldn’t get the memo and the slush would still be filled with queries that don’t follow this flow.
But I believe very much in my query letter template, which you’ll find in the second page of the PDF. It has a nice flow to it, and is a good way to organize all of the elements of the query letter.
Here’s something to keep in mind about writing a query letter: IT’S A ONE-PAGE COVER LETTER. Your query letter length? 250 to 450 words. That’s it! Sure, it feels so much more monumental than that, but the query letter only has one job: To get the agent or publisher interested enough to move on to your writing sample or proposal. That’s it. That’s all.
Writers obsess over the query letter. It feels like their “one shot” to achieve publication. Their foot in the door. But believe me when I say that I never offered representation based solely on the query letter, and I have overlooked many crappy queries to then offer on a great manuscript. The query is a means to an end.
While I hope this query letter format tool helps you work on your query writing, I want to make sure you keep your focus where it belongs: on crafting an amazing manuscript.
As a book editor, I work on everything from queries and book proposals to complete novel and memoir manuscripts. If you’d like personal advice on your own pitch or manuscript, reach out!
The novel synopsis is a source of great consternation for many writers, and I completely understand why. To be honest, I hate writing them, I hate reading them, and I know I’m not alone. They are, usually, both crime and punishment. But they are a necessary evil for several reasons, which I’ll mention. Read on to find out how to take the sting out of this basic publishing skill.
What a Novel Synopsis Is and What It Does
A novel synopsis is, in very basic terms, a one-to-four-page document that explains every major plot point and character development moment. That’s it and that’s all. For such a short and simple document, it sure seems to stir up a lot of angst.
Okay, so maybe my perspective is biased. I’m sure not everyone hates the novel synopsis. I’m sure there are writers out there who write amazing synopses, and agents/editors who gobble them up. Don’t get me wrong, they serve an important purpose.
A synopsis demonstrates how you think about story, how you plot, and how you wrap everything up. These are very important skills. Wonderful pitches fall apart all the time in the execution.
Agents and publishers are curious to know:
that you have a lively cast of characters
that you are working with enough plot and subplot, or whether it’s too little or too much
that you’re building appropriate stakes and tension as the story progresses
how you plan on landing this thing once it’s going, whether everything will be resolved or you’re leaving some threads open for potential future stories
if you have any big red flags or fatal flaws in your story, which usually happen in the second half (see “Fair Warning”, below)
Some agents and publishers pay a lot of attention to the synopsis. Some glance at it. Others don’t even request one. No matter what, it would behoove you to have this document available in at least two lengths, to deploy when necessary.
How to Write a Strong Novel Synopsis
The best way to write a strong novel synopsis is to sit down and do it. Sorry! That’s it! There’s no secret magic dust that I can give you in this case.
Open a blank document and jot down all of the major plot events of your story. You can start in bullet points, if that helps, but eventually you’ll want to write them out in narrative format. Don’t worry about making it cute, pitchy, or voice-y. Your writing should be clear and tight. Just the facts, ma’am. Be sure to fold in the three or four biggest character turning points, too. These are the changes your character goes through as they get where they’re going. My strong belief is that a synopsis will involve character somehow, to give a sense of how plot and protagonist play together.
For plot, at minimum, you want to hit your opening (the inciting incident that launches your story), a handful of strong points in the middle as things go wrong and obstacles arise, your climax, and your resolution.
Mention only those details that are necessary for clarity and understanding. If the mom’s job is important to the plot, include it. If the dog and cute neighbor factor into the story but not in a big way, you may want to leave them out. For the purposes of this document, you are running lean.
For all of my surprise and reveal fans: Sorry. I’m about to crush your dreams. But you have to reveal your twists and turns, and your ending. I know you want to tease, tease, tease an agent into reading the whole manuscript. You think that if you just withhold the major twist ending, they will fall over themselves to request and sink five hours of reading into your novel because the suspense will kill them otherwise. Well, catch-22, the odds that they’ll request the full and then get all the way to the end are slim if you don’t demonstrate that you know what you’re doing first and that your twist is worth it. (There are people who vehemently disagree and will fight me on this. You’re not changing my mind, but I fully expect to hear from you!)
Tips for Novel Synopsis Writing
The most common lengths for a novel synopsis are: one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages (roughly the same as one single-spaced page), two single-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages. The reason for this wishy-washiness is that different agents/publishers will request different things in different formats. I recommend having three synopses available to send when you start submitting: a tight one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages (this one will not be requested that often).
So you can attack this beast in one of two ways:
Option 1: You sit down and write your entire novel in one single-spaced page (you still need normal 1″ margins and paragraph spacing, so you can’t just use every available centimeter of space). This is the more difficult approach, because I’m guessing your novel probably has more than one page of material. So whittling it down so drastically is daunting. But doing it all at once is also very helpful, because once you’ve shrunk it, you can much more easily add some substance to make a longer synopsis for a two-page and four-page option.
Option 2: You sit down and you do the painful shave. Start with four double-spaced pages. Put down more detail than necessary. Introduce the bulk of your secondary and tertiary characters. Mention events that don’t have a lot of bearing on character change or plot stakes. Save this version. Open another document. Now you’re aiming for two double-spaced pages. Shave, shave, shave. Delete everything possible that doesn’t impact the reader’s understanding of your story. Save this version. Then single-space it and realize that you’re over one page. Now the real agony begins as you distill further. Save the one-page version. And voila! This is perhaps the more scenic route, but the destination is the same.
There is one great test of a synopsis that I recommend to everyone: Show it to someone who doesn’t know your story, and then have them explain your book to you. If they kinda sorta get it and are able to hit the major points, you’ve written a successful synopsis. If they start to squirm, you’re not being clear enough. Your synopsis is either too thin or too detailed.
The only way out is through, my friends. So sit down, embrace our love/hate relationship with this document, and let’s get started.
Fair Warning: Part of the synopsis’ job is to reveal story problems. If you write a synopsis and have trouble filling it with actual plot points, it might mean that your plot is too thin. If you can’t possibly omit any plot points and your synopsis is five pages, that might mean that the scope of your novel is too broad. Be prepared to learn that you might have bigger issues as you write this summary document. It definitely happens.
I had a client recently come to me for a 30-minute discussion of his query and opening pages. My big piece of feedback was, “I don’t know if this is a query problem or a novel problem, but I’m not seeing any plot here. Something should be kicking into gear in these opening pages, and the query should be covering more development than I’m seeing.” We moved on to a complete manuscript service and, guess what? There is very little plot, and that is a big issue. Keep your eyes and ears open as you prepare your synopsis documents, you might learn more than just how to write a novel synopsis.
I include synopsis comments with every service as a manuscript editor. If you’re really struggling with yours, let’s work on it together.
Delaying an agent submission isn’t usually on a writer’s radar. Most writers very much want an agent to request their manuscript, so why would they delay? There is a really compelling reason to be strategic in capitalizing on an agent’s interest.
Submitting Too Soon
Writers are humans. They are, whether you want to think so or not, vulnerable to the quirks of human nature. And one of those foibles is impatience. A lot of writers tend to submit their manuscripts before their manuscripts are ready.
I have been beating this dead horse for about ten years, but it’s true. In a lot of cases, writers are too eager to get their work out there, so they gear up for submission to agents or publishing houses one or two revisions before they should.
It’s okay. It happens to everyone. But this is my level-headed plea that you try and recognize if this is happening to you. Did you rush into submission? Are you about to send some manuscripts out that may need more revision?
Did you put your work away for a few months before doing one last pass? (Nobody ever follows this advice, but if they did, the slush may be a very different place.)
Too often, writers really want to see the fruits of their labor. They want to get “out there”, like, yesterday, and see if their project is worth anything. I get it, I really do.
But this sometimes results in a submission that will get rejected because it hasn’t had enough time and revision. And then you may have shut the door on a promising potential agent/writer relationship.
Twitter pitch contests and similar opportunities only tend to make this worse, because they create this false sense of urgency. That you need to submit now now now or you’ll miss your chance forever.
Worth the Wait
Here is an excerpt from a conversation I had with a client. This client wanted my blessing to send the first 50 pages of a manuscript to an agent. The manuscript needed some work. This is how I responded:
Looks like you’re moving ahead full steam with this submission. However, you told me that you originally wanted to wait. Now it sounds like you talked yourself out of it. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity! I need to do it!” Well, I’m about to suggest some serious revision. And I worry that you’ll be tempted to rush through it in order to submit.
You seem to have a very hard time managing whether or not you’re comfortable waiting. “Not sure I can tell her to wait?” Why the heck not? I think you might be making these situations into life-or-death, now-or-never in your head. They’re not. Plus, if you send the first 50 and the agent likes it, I think you’re going to be up against this very same dilemma again if there’s a full request. Immediately, it’ll be, “What do I do? Do you think the next 200 pages are okay to send?”
I suggest waiting until the whole thing is ready. To pull off a successful revision will take months. We’ve had extensive discussion about what happens when someone submits, then revises, and realizes, “Oh man, I submitted too early.” Even though it seems like you’re self-aware enough to know that you might be doing this, you still keep doing it, or wanting to do it.
You’re investing a lot of time and energy to get editorial feedback so that, I would imagine, you can revise your manuscript into submission-ready form. So do you want to submit early anyway? I would say no. Not only can you tell someone to wait on a submission, but there are contests running constantly.
This attitude of do-or-die, now-or-never is not going to serve you. It’s going to result in nothing but little bursts of anxiety when, frankly, you should forget completely about submission and focus on your book. Your strongest shot at publication isn’t getting into a closed agent’s inbox via the Twitter contest back door, it’s having a rock solid manuscript to impress them with.
Delaying an Agent Submission
Maybe now I’ve convinced you that a strong project, no matter when it arrives, is your best asset. That you can wait on submission while you revise. And that the Twitter pitch contest isn’t going anywhere.
But what if you’ve already submitted and you have a request? Do you rush into sending your manuscript anyway?
Nope! You can absolutely tell an agent that you need to go do some revision, and you’ll be back.
Thank you so much for your interest. I’m doing one more revision pass, and I’ll submit as soon as I’m ready.
Boom! You don’t even have to give a timeframe. That might put even more arbitrary pressure on you that you don’t need. In most cases, agents will understand. They want to see a strong project, too, even if it takes a few extra months.
So cool your jets. Revise a little more. And come out of the gate with something that demands attention. It’ll be worth it.
Need help getting a manuscript submission-ready? Hire me as your developmental editor. My “Submission Package Edit” gives you notes on everything an agent or publisher will want to see.
Oceans of ink and blog posts have been spilled talking about novel opening pages. And with good reason. Your novel first pages are the only thing an agent gets to see before they make their decision about you. Well, that and your query letter and synopsis, which is why those are such hot topics. But how do you nail your novel’s opening pages? The advice may be simpler than you think.
Great Novel First Pages Start With Conflict and Action
I cannot overstate this point: Conflict and action hook a reader and transport them into your story. This is exactly the goal of your novel’s opening. So start in action, start with conflict. You may want to use a smaller, scene-specific conflict (or “bridging conflict“) to get readers on the bus initially. That also puts less pressure on you to start with mind-blowing high-stakes conflict, which can be difficult to pull off before the reader knows your character.
Basically, you want to give them just enough of your character so that they care, without over-indulging in information (see next section). And you want to put the character in motion. They want something, they’re experiencing an obstacle, they are frustrated or full of longing. This is a good state for your character to be in.
And, very importantly, they are starting in action, where they’re either being frustrated by an obstacle or striving toward something. You need that balance of internal conflict and external conflict.
If you start with too much external action right away, readers may not care because they don’t know the character, their objectives, or motivations.
If you start with no external action, then it’s easy to get bored. For example, a character sitting in their room, philosophizing about life and all the ways in which it has gone wrong. Maybe you start with generalities, for example:
Life can be funny sometimes. I spent 13 years thinking I was normal. Totally lame. And then one day, everything changed.
But the character is just sitting and thinking. There’s no action. This is 100% internal conflict, and you want to avoid it because nothing is actually happening.
Avoid Too Much Information in Your Novel Opening
In the same vein, information overload can sabotage your novel opening pages in other ways. You might start with action, like the character getting bullied, but then you stop and go into great detail about the school, everyone in it, and the character’s history with the bully since kindergarten.
“Context is important!” you say. But you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. If you start off your novel with a ton of information about everyone we’re meeting and all of the details of a character’s life, the plan will not get off the ground, so to speak.
There has to be a balance of action and information, and if in doubt, action should win out. For every piece of information that you introduce in the first few pages of your novel, ask yourself: Does this really, really, really have to be here? Otherwise, you may insert it later, or not at all.
Pick a Moment You Can Sustain
Finally, to tie your novel opening together, you need to pick a moment you can sustain for two or three pages without either stopping the action to give tons of information, and without leaving the moment to go into backstory (more information).
If you currently start with general philosophizing (per the example above), a ton of information, a lot of jumping around in time to gather various details, or without a sense of balanced internal and external conflict, it’s time to take another look. Your beginning really is your make-or-break. So it’s your job to make it good.
Struggling with your first pages? My Submission Package Edit revamps your first ten manuscript pages, query, and synopsis, so you can make an amazing first impression in the slush. Hire me today!
Today I’d like to talk about submitting to literary agents who have already rejected your work. There are only so many literary agents to go around, so I understand resubmitting a query letter to the same agents with multiple projects, or multiple revisions of the same project. Longtime blog friend Mary puts it like this:
I’m starting my second round of submitting my novel to agents. There are some agents I submitted it to between three and four years ago. I’ve substantially revised the novel in that time. Should I submit again to agents who had no interest back then? Two years ago I submitted a second novel to them with no luck either. Will they think “GAA! Her again!”?
Unfortunately, even though you’ve corresponded with these agents before and they’ve looked at things of yours, it doesn’t seem like they’re hot leads for you. If you haven’t gotten a project through to a particular agent with either a personalized and encouraging rejection, or a revision request… And if this particular pattern has played out with two different manuscripts…
I’m afraid resubmitting a query will not help you connect with that particular agent because it may not be a fit. I can’t say this with 100% certainty for each agent on your submission list, of course. I’m not them. But I’d say that your chances are on the slimmer side.
Remind Them of Your History When Submitting To Literary Agents Who Have Already Rejected Your Work
Especially if you’re considering resubmitting a query with a new version of a manuscript they’ve already seen. You can absolutely try to submit to them. There’s nothing preventing you, unless you got a sense about any of the agents that they simply didn’t get, or didn’t want to get, your work. (It’s definitely not worth barking up their tree if that’s the case.) But do you want to submit to them again? I would be wary of this approach, honestly. You’ve identified the potential issue with it in your question.
Agents do remember people who’ve submitted to them, even a few years on. Most use email inboxes that make your previous submissions easy to find. And if you’re submitting to them and you have a history of previous submissions, you do want to mention that they’ve previously seen your work in your query. So they’ll have everything at their fingertips to remind themselves of your previous correspondence.
Now the agent receives another submission from you. And, in this case, it’s a resubmission of a project they’ve passed on. They will likely consider it. Will it be real interest, though, or politeness? That’s tough to say. Your fear isn’t completely unfounded. The agent might, realistically, wonder why you keep submitting to them if they haven’t given you any positive signals in the past. Sometimes an agent will have dozens of submissions from the same writer, even though none have hit their mark. Agents definitely remember these names.
Are you at that level of notoriety with one project, a second project, and a revision? No, but you’re getting up there. You know the old adage. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. In your case, this might not be insanity, of course. You may have turned around a phenomenal revision. And I hope you have! Focus your efforts on people who have either shown you encouragement, though, or new faces.
Know When to Keep Submitting a Project, and When to Move On
Long story short, in publishing, as in dating, it might be tempting to chase someone who doesn’t encourage your advances, but that may not be your strongest shot at success. I would advise you to freshen up your list of potential agents and submit to some new names. Let other agents see your revision for the first time! If nothing comes of that process, then you’re facing the difficult decision of whether you want to revise again, or chalk this manuscript up as a learning experience. Submitting to literary agents who have already rejected your work can be tricky and risky. It may be worth a shot, though.
Do I love giving this advice? Absolutely not. But I respect you too much to sugarcoat a reply. I wish you the best of luck!
Are you getting nowhere with your manuscript? Wondering if you should keep revising or focus on a new project? Give yourself the strongest shot at success by working with me as your book editor. I can help you with questions of career strategy as well.
The revision process for writing a book can be extremely intimidating. I completely understand. There are some really great points in the comments about why this situation arises, but that doesn’t change the fact that writers are still often too intimidated by revision to give it the time it deserves. Read on.
There’s More to Writing Than Query Letters
I have a harsh lesson for you today about the revision process, my dear readers. Hear me out.
In the spirit of retrofitting my website with all the latest gizmos and gadgets, I’ve also been doing work behind the scenes on SEO (search engine optimization). It’s the art and skill of making websites more friendly to search engines and, ideally, pulling potential readers in off of Google by using keywords that relate to the site’s content. That way, you reach people who are searching for what you have to offer, and they get relevant content. It’s a win-win!
The sweet spot happens if you find keywords that are searched for a lot, but that aren’t terribly competitive. That’s where you find your opportunities to rank high in search engine results. I read a book about it, so I’m basically a pro now. Deal with it. 😛
Revising Your Writing
In reviewing some keywords, I came across the perfect example of why so many writing efforts fail. I feel like the smug spinster aunt for pointing this out, but just look at these two keywords, and the associated search volume. JUST READ THEM AND WEEP (I know I did):
What’s this you’re seeing? These are two search engine keywords and their monthly associated search volume. Up to 30,000 of y’all are searching about how to do creative writing every month, and only 100 brave souls (or even fewer) actually want to know what to do with all that beautiful creative writing once they’ve written it!
I apologize for this scolding post if you’re right there with me on the revision train. For the rest of you, the revision train is leaving the station, and you better be on it!
This reminds of me of all the times I spoke at conferences. 9 out of 10 writers would ask about fuh-reaking query letters. Rarely, rarely, and I mean every third or fourth weekend conference, would I get a craft question at a panel discussion. Or someone would approach me with an insightful writing concern.
Every other time, writers would be falling all over themselves to ask about queries. Queries! Those 300-word letters! Compared to your 70,000-word novels! This misdirected energy continues to surprise me.
Love the Revision Process
The revision process is where it’s at. Writing is actually in the rewriting. Once you’ve done the creative writing, there are so many wonderful things that happen during the revision process. Revision is where you find the shape of your writing, it’s where you tease out all of the rich thematic elements.
I can’t get enough of it. So this is a call to action and a plea from your dear friend MK. If your zest for writing ends as soon as you type The End on a manuscript, dig into this website and think about learning to love revision.
A literary agent’s slush pile is overflowing with manuscripts where the writer wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and rev–nah, let’s just send it in! In the overwhelming majority of cases, these are not the manuscripts that get offers of representation.
How to Revise
If you’re stuck or just getting started with your manuscript revision, take this tip: Put your manuscript away for a few weeks. (Ideally three months but nobody ever takes me up on this advice!) Once you’ve typed The End, your subconscious has gone into overdrive thinking of your story and all of its various elements. When you return to the page, you will actually be seeing it with new eyes.
It’s the easiest advice to give, but the hardest to follow. Are you up for taking the challenge and loving the revision process a little more with me this year?
If you really don’t know where to start with manuscript revision, hire me as your novel editor. I’ll give you a comprehensive, actionable, and inspiring map.
Recently, an editorial client of mine wrote in with the following awesome question about submitting multiple queries to multiple agents:
Is it ok to query two books at the same time to different agents? A novel and a picture book? An agent I want to work with is accepting queries for both picture books and novels. Is it ok to query the same agent with two different books? But I’d also like to send both projects to other agents.
This is a two-parter, so buckle your seat belts!
The two questions here are:
Should I send two projects to the same agent?
Should I query multiple projects at a time?
If you’re like my client, you have a lot of ideas in a lot of stages of development. You have a picture book here, a middle grade there, a YA up your sleeve, and maybe a few non-fiction pieces, just for the hell of it. You want them all to become real, live books yesterday. So how to do you proceed?
Submitting Multiple Queries to the Same Agent at Once
Should I send two projects to the same agent? No. Let them consider one project and respond before you send them something else. That’s just good etiquette. And based on their response, you might realize, “Hey, I have a better idea now of what they’re looking for,” or “Maybe they’re not the one for me.” If you’ve already sent them another submission, you won’t be able to tailor that second letter to increase your chances.
Also, you might run the risk of scaring them off. If they haven’t yet gotten a chance to read Project 1, and Project 2 just hit their inbox, is Project 3 next? How many are there? Is this what you’ll be like to work with? Too much! Too soon! Aaah! That’s a bit melodramatic, but you really will run the risk of the agent being put-off because it looks like you’re just fire-hosing all of New York City with a bunch of projects. They’d rather see a writer who is passionate and focused on one project at a time.
Querying More Than One Project at a Time
Should I query multiple projects at a time? Absolutely not. Let’s say the best case scenario happens. Watch how quickly it turns into the worst case scenario. In this day and age, remember, most agents represent more than one category. Sure, sometimes agents only represent novels. In that case, some of them will be fine with you having a picture book agent on the side. But some won’t be. Keep that in mind.
Let’s say Agent A wants your novel and Agent B wants your picture book. But A represents both categories, while B only does picture books. You’ll have to tell them about one another at some point. When you do, I guarantee Agent A is going to ask you, “Why the heck didn’t you send me the picture book?” You run the very real risk of turning B off. You’ll immediately look like you were sneaking around behind their backs. I hope you can see that it’d turn into a mess very, very quickly.
Multiple Queries to Multiple Agents is Too Much
FOCUS on one project at a time. Submit it. Hear feedback. Then you have two options: Revise that first project and submit it again, or put it away for a while and focus on the next project. Use what you’ve learned to make the pitch for your next project even stronger, then submit it when it’s truly ready. The take-away: ONE PROJECT AT A TIME, PLZ.
Everyone wants to rush rush rush through this process, but I’m here to tell you that if you have a need for speed, publishing is not for you. If you sold a book today (not gotten an agent for a book, SOLD the book), the earliest it’d come out is 2019. So, as the song says, “Take your time, do it right.”
Not only do I do manuscript editing, but I am also a publishing strategy consultant. If you’d like to talk your submission plans over and plan your next move in a sane and productive way, please reach out.
A note: This post was written in February and programmed here to fill a hole in my programming. Normal blog posts will resume in the next few weeks, but I just wanted to put some fresh material online!
Recently, I worked with a client who had written, by all accounts, a middle-grade novel. It has fantasy elements, an eleven- or twelve-year-old protagonist, rich themes that have to do with the coming of age time period, etc. etc. etc. But my client hadn’t really thought of the work as MG. Instead, he’d envisioned it as a crossover, perhaps close to THE BOOK THIEF in terms of potential market reach. Basically, he wanted to tell a story and then let the market decide where it fit.
We ended up having a lot of very interesting talks about this idea. Long story short, however, that’s not really how it works. When you’re writing something, you want to have some idea of where it will fit, per my recent “Writing With Market in Mind” post. If you gently leave it up to the publishing gods to decide, you may not get very far. First of all, agents and editors like writers who pitch their projects confidently and know at least a little something about the marketplace.
For all intents and purposes, the project in question seems very MG, even if that was never the client’s conscious intention. And if it walks like a MG, and it quacks like a MG, if my client doesn’t pitch it as a MG, he’s going to get some raised eyebrows. Furthermore, if he doesn’t pitch it as a MG, it may just get slotted into that category by agents and editors alike anyway. If he were to query adult fiction agents with the project, as I’ve described it, I guarantee most would say, “This isn’t my wheelhouse, this sounds like MG. You should be querying children’s book agents.”
You can always say, as my client did, “Well, I sure would like to tap the crossover audience and sell this to children and adults, please and thank you.” Wouldn’t that be nice for everyone? Most people would love a crossover hit like THE BOOK THIEF or THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. Selling the same book to two different markets? Yes, please.
The problem with a crossover is that you can’t aim for one, however. I have said this before and I will say it again (and again and again). The only person to decide that is a publisher, and most won’t take the risk of trying to publish across categories. This strategy is reserved for only a tiny fraction of all books that go to print. And sometimes, a crossover only becomes a crossover when it’s published in one category first, then the other, and it happens to gain traction in both.
What I’m saying is, it’s a lot easier to set some lobster traps than it is to drag the whole of the sea. At least with the former strategy (picking a concrete category), you will probably catch some lobsters. With a wider net, you may catch everything, but there’s a big chance you’ll catch nothing, or a whole lot of garbage.
Many beginning writers think that putting, “This book will appeal to everyone from age 1 to 101!” is a huge selling point. Who wouldn’t want to sell to everyone from 1 to 101? That’s, like, billions of people. Why wouldn’t a publisher want to sell billions of books? Unfortunately, this line of thinking is delusional. Any marketer will tell you that your catchment area is too big. What a one-year-old likes is very different than what a 101-year-old likes and that’s actually a good thing.
So I advised my client to either a) become okay with the idea of pitching his story as a MG, or b) edit the story and weave in several elements that would give it more appeal to the adult fiction marketplace. This isn’t too far-fetched because there are a lot of books set during the “coming of age” period that go on to publish in the adult realm. That 9-12 or 13-18 age range isn’t just for children’s novels. The revision route is obviously the taller mountain to climb, but, if it fits the client’s vision for the book better, then it’s what has to happen.
The jury is still out on what this client will choose to do, but I wanted to bring the situation to everyone’s attention, because it contains some valuable truths about “picking a lane” and thinking about the category of your own work.
A lot of writers hear the well-meaning advice that, in order to break in more easily, they should have some writing clips and credits to their resume. It’s good advice, and I especially don’t want to disenfranchise the many writers who have been actively pursuing this strategy with my answer, because it is a very worthwhile strategy.
In case you haven’t thought about this issue before, I’ll summarize here: When you’re an aspiring writer, you have a lot of ambition to write, but not a lot of platform. People aren’t buying what you want to sell, basically. Or, if they are, they aren’t really paying you for it. You’re probably getting opportunities to showcase your work on blogs and at other web-based venues that don’t have a budget to compensate contributors. Or maybe you start your own blog, like this ol’ hack did! This is how a lot of people get going.
Then you think that there has to be more out there that’s, well, more noteworthy to a potential publishing gatekeeper. So maybe you explore other avenues to showcase your work. Whether it’s in the children’s writing realm, say, Highlights Magazine, or in an unrelated area, like an op-ed for the local newspaper, or a poem in a general fiction literary journal, you start to set your sights higher.
Whether you try to gather clips in print journalism, the literary community, scientific or medical magazines (a lot of writers have done a lot of technical writing for their day jobs), etc., you’re basically writing and racking up pieces that someone else has vetted and decided are good enough to publish.
This all makes a lot of sense, right? If you want to write, write, and maybe the momentum of all your writing will speed up your efforts on the book publishing front. Being published is being published, no matter what you’re publishing. And writing professionals love to see writing credits. Right? Weeeeeeeeeell…
It’s not often that clear-cut. Publishing an op-ed in your local paper in Portland is not the magic ticket to calling attention to yourself with a children’s book editor in New York, unless, of course, your op-ed or Huffpo article causes such a stir that it goes “viral” and attracts a lot of attention or controversy. In fact, under my original name (a much longer version of “Kole”), I published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, which is a notable newspaper that people have heard of. And I thought, for sure, this was my golden ticket. The day it ran, I waited for the phone to ring. Aaaaand…my mother was very proud of me. Then one man from Idaho took offense at my sense of humor. That’s about it.
The fact of the matter is, if you can say in your query that you’ve published with a top-tier publication that most casual readers have heard of, that’s going to be an amazing feather in your cap. And agents and editors might take notice. But it’s likely not going to get you a book publishing contract.
And outside of that, if you’re publishing on blogs, or in smaller literary magazines, or in venues that have nothing whatsoever to do with publishing novels, then your clips are going to tell a potential agent or editor one positive thing, but one positive thing only: That you’ve hustled a little and know a little bit about the process. And that’s a positive thing, because that might indicate that you’re at least somewhat easy to work with during the publishing process. But it’s not a guarantee of anything.
My main objection to splitting your focus and concentrating on amassing clips if your primary goal is to publish a book can be expressed in this recent post. The truth of the matter is, some journalists spend years trying to crack the New York Times for their own resumes. It’s an entirely new skillset. First, there’s learning how to write well enough that the Times would take interest. Then it’s cultivating contacts and editor relationships that will get you prime consideration. Then it’s learning the culture of the publication (and every publication has one, no matter how small they are) and learning how to work within it successfully. After a lot of effort, you may finally get published in the Times. But then you’re published in the Times, not in the book realm.
What’s missing from this picture of all the effort you’ve put in? Oh yeah, honing your novel craft, which is why you’re doing any of this to begin with. So gathering clips is phenomenal, but it doesn’t help you accomplish your primary goal directly. And there’s no guarantee that it will help you accomplish your primary goal indirectly, either. You may sink a few years into pitching freelance articles to magazines, distract yourself, and maybe emerge with one well-regarded piece in Real Simple…that has nothing to do with your novel.
Is that payoff worth it? Only you can decide. This strategy only seems to work well when you’re a journalist in your day job, and a novelist by night. Then you possess both skillsets already, and you can jump back and forth more easily. Otherwise, it’s like going through all the work and trouble of growing a new arm, just so you can give your primary hands better manicures. It seems like a lot more effort than it’s worth.
Many of you who are familiar with my writing have heard me express surprise and frustration at the idea that so many writers are obsessed with the pitch that the product (in our case, the manuscript) seems almost an afterthought. Back when I would speak at conferences, I would get maybe 8 questions out of ten about the query letter, with only 2 about craft. Once the pitch is over (one page, or about three minutes in a conference session), the burden of proof falls squarely on the product. And in the end, the product is what matters!
But people still love to talk about that pitch. I think I know why. It’s what you present, so IT feels like the “make or break” point, not the manuscript that follows. It’s also shorter and more formulaic, so it’s easier to control. You can’t really control whether someone falls in love with your manuscript right from the get-go: Tastes vary, manuscripts are of various quality, and your style comes into play a lot more. But with the pitch, if you have a great query, it’s pretty easy to feel confident. There are fewer moving parts to gamble with.
So that’s where the attention goes. Good? Bad? I say it’s understandable.
The pitch is what opens the door, so it does deserve its fair share of focus. But once you have someone on the hook, you still have to reel them in, and that’s where all attention goes back to the manuscript. So you can’t escape that nasty product part, no matter how hard you try.
To even get people to look, though, you need the pitch to be solid. The more I think about it, the more I see that a pitch needs to:
Be targeted (audience-focused)
Answer the question, “Why does my audience need this?”
The good and bad news is that a pitch can’t change your product. It can spin it, sure, and a certain amount of spin is desirable, but if you aren’t already thinking about these questions as you write your project, your pitch won’t superimpose them onto your manuscript in a satisfying way. You can say that your product is all sorts of things in the pitch, but if that doesn’t come across when someone reads it, the pitch is going to get thrown out as inaccurate. So if you’ve never thought about what your book really is, or who it’s for, or why it’s necessary in a crowded publishing marketplace, you’re likely going to struggle mightily with the query letter, which basically asks you to talk about all of these things.
The worst pitch in the world is pretty much along the following lines:
This is a really great coming of age story about a character who goes through a lot of stuff and comes out the other side. It’s for everyone from zero to 100, and I wrote it because I’ve had this story in my head for thirty years, simply begging to be told, and it wouldn’t let me go until I got it all down on paper.
It’s not specific (every story that involves character change can be seen as a “coming of age”), it spits in the face of the old adage about trying to be everything to everyone and brazenly disregards the reality that there are very specific audiences out in Publishingland, and it doesn’t justify its own existence in the larger scheme of things. You know how baby pictures are always adorable to the parents? And that’s great? But not everyone wants to look at other people’s baby pictures past the first couple unless there’s something personal and notable about them? Do you see where I’m headed with this?
Back to Shark Tank. The entrepreneurs that make it hook the Sharks with a pitch that answers the above questions. What’s the product? It’s not just a doohickey. The world has enough of those. It’s a doohickey that’s for…the kitchen, the garage, taking great baby pictures, whatever. In publishing terms, let’s say it’s a dystopian romance.
It’s not for everyone, because if you say it’s for everyone, the savvy Shark is going to know full well that you can’t market a product to everyone. For exaggeration’s sake, that would cost trillions of dollars and you’d have to get your message to the outer reaches of Mongolia. Not possible, nor desirable, even. Because the savvy Shark knows that 7.9999 billion of our 8 billion marketing recipients are probably not going to like or need whatever the product is. There’s only one thing that’s for everyone, and that’s oxygen. (Except anaerobic bacteria don’t like it. See? You can’t please everyone.) And maybe vanilla ice cream. But are you really going to try going up against the clout of vanilla ice cream?! Everyone is different, and we all like different things. This is GOOD. In publishing terms, our example is a dark YA fantasy for today’s troubled world.
Finally, we get to the big “why.” And this is the hardest question to tackle. I am often left with this idea after I finish reading a manuscript. And? So? Why? Why does this need to be a story? “Well,” the writer stammers, “it’s a story I really want to tell about a kid who goes on an adventure.” So what? Everyone goes on adventures every single day. We all have incredible stories that make up our lives. Why do I need to give you hours of my time and dollars of my paycheck to read your story? (Especially since it’s one you just made up?) Well, that’s where the question of theme comes in. What about your story is going to dovetail with my story and bring about a new or different understanding of the bigger picture? How is it going to elevate my life? In our publishing example, let’s say that heavy identity and survival themes are explored against the backdrop of a troubled world, which uneasily mirrors our own. To think about this as you write, to mention this in the query shows that you’ve seriously thought about the “why” and that your product has a raison d’etre (reason for being, I don’t know how to do the little hat accent on the first “e”).
Let’s tie our doohickey example all together and hit all three points:
The Doohickey 3000 is a revolutionary tool for new and exhausted parents that guarantees you’ll never take a bad baby picture. Baby will be so mesmerized by the Doohickey 3000 that they won’t blink, drool, cry, or vomit, and it will coax a gummy smile out of even the fussiest youngsters. Whether it’s to finally get your family and friends to “like” your damn baby pictures, or to take the world by storm by landing your baby on one of those terrible clickbait viral websites, the Doohickey 3000 will help you foist your bundle of joy on the world with ease!
Now let’s circle back to our publishing example:
DOOHICKEY is a dark YA dystopian romance that pits two teenagers against a scary and uncertain world that closely resembles our own. By deeply exploring themes of identity and survival, it will give contemporary teen readers an outlet to explore some of the fear and uncertainty of growing up in a world where there’s a public shooting every week and we have somehow turned into our own worst enemies.
If you don’t know how to answer some of these questions about your own manuscript, maybe it’s time to go back and really dig into that third question, the “why.” Why are you writing it? Why is it a good project to work on now? Why might the world embrace this story?
“Because I wanna write it, I just wanna,” is fine, and that passion is what’s going to keep you going through revisions, but it’s not enough when you start to think about the reality of publishing, which is that publishers want to put products (books) out that will sell to customers (a reading audience). They don’t just exist to make your childhood dreams come true, or so you can print business cards that say “Author.”
Once you know what it is, who it’s for, and why they’d probably like it, then the pitch becomes very easy to assemble.