Writing Excuses 12.23: Proposals, Pitches, and Queries
Key points: Queries are for novels. Query letter is one page. Start with your pitch. One paragraph. Not a movie trailer, not a rhetorical question. Lead into the story, the concept. Character, conflict, setting, hook, payoff. Query and pitch, you can’t get your whole story in. One interesting aspect, one character, one conflict. Include the tone, even if you just state it. Tell, don’t show is okay for queries and pitches! Proposals say this is what I want to do, what the books is going to be about, how it is going to work. Proposals are for agents and editors that you already work with. New writers are likely to do sample chapters and an outline or synopsis. Synopsis? About 3 pages, major characters, major story points, key twists, resolution. Sample chapters are the first chapters. The purpose of the synopsis or outline is selling for the sales department. Give them a sense of the feeling the reader will have. Queries and pitches are to convince someone that you have something interesting for them, and that you are good to work with. Proposals are for working relationships, to offer something that they believe they can sell. Make your story appealing!
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 23.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Proposals, Pitches, and Queries.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We’re going to talk about proposals. And pitches. And queries. But were actually going to talk about them in reversed order.
[Brandon] Because we’re going to go from short to long, which makes way more sense, I feel, for this podcast. But they aren’t alliterative in the proper way…
[Brandon] When I wrote it queries, pitches, and proposals. So I switched it around, and it’s really annoying when the words do not obey and match their meaning to their proper alliterative state.
[Brandon] Let’s talk about queries. My students panic about queries. Probably rightly so. Because here you have practiced writing a longer piece, whatever it is, it’s going to be longer than the query unless you’re doing certain flash fiction. You spend all your time getting really good at this, and then you go on to the agent’s website and they say, “Send me a query letter.” You have no idea how to do that. Or how to build one. Or how to pitch your novel as a query. Like, this was really intimidating for me, and I never, during that era, got good at it.
[Mary] So, as we start into this, I just want to reassure short story readers that this is a novel problem. You do not need to describe your short story in your query letter, and in fact, you should not.
[Brandon] Nope, because it’s short enough for them to just read. They don’t want… In fact, I’ve heard short story editors say, “Please don’t give me a pitch in your cover letter. We just write your name and we will file it away attached to your story and…”
[Mary] So, the problem… And the reason I’m flagging this early on is that both… In both cases, you will see “Attach a query letter.” Short story writers? The query letters we’re talking about right now, the queries? These are not yours. Don’t worry.
[Mary] All you have to do is put your name.
[Brandon] They want that for reference. They often will file the story separate from the cover letter, and give the story a codename or something like that, so that it is taking off people’s names. Sometimes, not always.
[Mary] Not always. But some places do.
[Brandon] All right. So, how do we write a query letter? What is a query letter? Let’s start with that. What is… What do they mean when they want a query for a novel? Dan is just shaking his head…
[Dan] I don’t know…
[Brandon] Looking [inaudible mean].
[Dan] Because I never got good at this, either. Really, what you’re trying to do with a query letter is…
[Howard] You’re asking permission to send them your novel.
[Dan] Yes. Basically.
[Brandon] Yes, but there’s more than that. Since this time, I’ve actually… Now that I’m nonthreatening to agents and editors…
[Brandon] Said, “How can I teach this to my students?” So I’ve gotten better at it, now that I don’t need it anymore. A query is one page. Most of the editors and agents I talk to… This is mostly an agent thing, most editors don’t want a query. The agents I’ve talked to all highly recommend get it shrunk to one page. This is because they just want to look through and see if it’s the sort of thing that matches what they want, if you can just cohesively put together even one page. The other thing that they say about it is, and this is counter to what I learned way back when, is you’re supposed to nowadays start with your best foot forward. I had heard originally that you start with a paragraph about you, and then a paragraph about your story, and then a get out. Now the query advice that I’m seeing on all the websites and from all the query places, like QueryShark and things like this are saying, “Lead with your best foot forward. Start immediately into your proposal and your pitch in one paragraph.
[Mary] Oh, interesting. I had always heard to keep the paragraph about yourself to the end.
[Brandon] Had you? Okay. Well, then maybe that’s why I was bad at it way back when…
[Howard] It makes sense because your book is going to be more interesting than you are.
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly. That’s the whole thing.
[Howard] I said that comedically, but…
[Dan] And nobody laughed.
[Howard] It’s not funny, it’s true. To the editor, it’s true.
[Brandon] No, I know what it was. I could guess. Once upon a time, a novel query led with your writing credentials, because you wouldn’t sell a novel without short story credentials. Now that you sell novels without short story credentials, you’re less likely to have any credentials. So move that to the bottom. In the old days, the fact you had been published three times in Asimov’s and this sort of thing was the most important thing about your novel pitch.
[Dan] When Brandon and I started trying to break in, it was long enough ago that we were still printing out the manuscripts and [garbled]
[Brandon] We still had editors saying to us, “Go get published in short stories in order to sell a novel.”
[Dan] Which nobody says anymore.
[Brandon] So. Regardless. A query is one paragraph. Now here’s the thing. Joshua, my agent, when I talked to him about this, I said, “What do you want for tone on these?” He said, “Don’t let it sound like a movie trailer…”
[Brandon] Which was really interesting. Yeah. Because your first instinct, I think, as a writer, is to start with the movie trailer. With a rhetorical question. He hates rhetorical questions.
[Brandon] Now, this is going to be an individual thing. But I think a lot of them are “What if you…” this. They want you to lead into the story, rather than treating them like an audience in a movie theater. Treat them like an editor who wants you to lead with the actual concept, not the fluff before you get to the concept.
[Howard] I have this sense that that form that you’re talking about… The formula that I use for back cover copy would serve this well. Which is character, conflict, setting, hook.
[Brandon] Yep. That’s it exactly.
[Howard] Give me a person, tell me what problem they’re having, give me an idea of where this is happening, and then lay the hook. That last piece, hook, I don’t know what that’s going to be. If there was a formula for hook, then this would be really easy.
[Mary] Well, one of the things that is different about the query versus back cover copy is that in the query, you have to tell them the ending.
[Brandon] Yes. You do want to tell the ending. Which is… Go into that. Why do editors want the ending?
[Mary] Because they want to know that you’re going to be able to stick the landing.
[Brandon] Yeah. I would say that this is more important for the proposal than the query. Sometimes you don’t have to… You’ve only got a… Maybe two paragraphs in the query to talk about this. But if you’ve got a great ending, go ahead and…
[Howard] So, let me update my formula. Character, conflict, setting, hook, conclusion.
[Brandon] Payoff is what I would say.
[Brandon] Now, you may be asking, how do I do that all? This is going to lead us into pitches, because when I’ve spoken to editors a lot about pitches… In fact, I’ve sat on now four or five panels at conventions that I have suggested me, editor, and agent doing American Idol for novel pitches. So that we can… And we are much nicer…
[Dan] Oh, you need one rude one.
[Brandon] But it forces the aspiring writer to come up and give a pitch. But it also gives them an opportunity to pitch to people who could actually buy that and things like this. So I’ve done this a lot of times. One of the things you have to realize is you can’t get across your whole story. Not in the query, or the pitch. Proposal, you can. But that’s… We’ll get to that in a minute. Query and pitch. You want to pick one interesting aspect about the character, one interesting aspect about the conflict…
[Howard] One… Character?
[Brandon] Yeah. One character.
[Howard] That’s one of the reasons I use that formula, is that when a back cover copy is trying to tell me about three characters, I’m lost. Especially since often, all you need to do… Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, the detective character that we open with… All he needed to do to get me to buy that book was tell me the interesting thing about that character, and I’m in.
[Brandon] I will give you my pitch for Steelheart. Because what actually taught me how to pitch was pitching to readers. Which is not that different from pitching to editors, except you don’t give them the ending. So my query right now, if I were querying for Steelheart would be, “What if people started gaining superpowers, just randomly [inaudible]?”
[Mary] Did you just start with a rhetorical question?
[Brandon] I’m not done yet. Nope, nope, nope. What if people started gaining superpowers, but then only people… Evil people got them? That’s, I think, a specific. It has worked really, really well. Throughout this world, people start gaining superpowers and only evil people get them. If you want to get rid of the question.
[Dan] Well, one of the problems with the question, the editors I’ve talked to who hate the rhetorical questions, often the reason they hate them is because they’re limiting. Have you ever wondered blah blah? No, I haven’t, therefore I’m not interested.
[Brandon] Right, right, right. It’s the “Have you ever wondered will it happen?”
[Brandon] Like, no, it just doesn’t work.
[Dan] So if you ask a rhetorical question that doesn’t include your audience, then it doesn’t work.
[Brandon] So. People start getting superpowers. Only evil people get them. 10 years later, we live in a post-apocalyptic world run by super villains. David Charleston is a guy… Or a teenager whose father was murdered by one of these, and he wants revenge. He’s going to do it by joining a team of assassins who research superheroes, find their weakness, and then murder them. That’s my pitch to audiences. For an editor, I would have another paragraph… Or another sentence or two, going into this turns into an exciting heist story where they must research Steelheart, the Emperor of Chicago, find his weakness, and then lure him into a trap where the reckoners kill him. Right? That’s like your ending thing. That is my paragraph pitch. It doesn’t go into character… David’s character conflicts. It doesn’t go into the other characters in the group. It doesn’t even go into the specifics of the plot, because for that story, the hook is the concept evil people started getting superpowers. There are no heroes.
[Howard] The way I would pitch that is by stealing from the first line of your book. Now I’ve forgotten your character’s name. Is it Charlie?
[Brandon] I’ve seen Steelheart bleed. David.
[Howard] Charlie… Or David. David has seen the immortal hero, Steelheart, bleed. Or the immortal super villain, Steelheart, bleed. That, all by itself, is kind of hook-ish. Then you’ve bought my time to tell me only super villains… Or only evil people get the superpowers.
[Mary] Well, this is the difference between back cover copy in the query or pitch, is that with the pitch or the query, one of the things that you’re trying to tell the editor is this is the kind of book it is. Whereas the reader has a bunch of other clues to tell them what kind of book it is.
[Brandon] Right. I’m really glad you brought this up, because a good pitch or query will get across the tone, even if you have to state it explicitly. This is a teen heist novel where the end result is somebody being assassinated. Right? They need to know that sort of information before they know if they want to look at it. Disney is probably not going to pick that up. Right? Hyperion is not interested in assassinating people as a story hook, but the publishers of the Maze Runner, which is where I went, that’s exactly what they want. They want things that are little more… A little older.
[Mary] This is actually one of the places where you really want to invert and tell, don’t show.
[Brandon] That’s true. Yeah.
[Mary] Because you don’t have a lot of space. Just straight tell.
[Dan] You gotta remember these agents and editors are reading so many of these that if they have to wade through your stylistic flourishes to get to the point, it’s going to grate after a while.
[Brandon] Now, I will say that one of the best queries, or at least most successful queries I’ve ever seen, was written by our friend Bryce Moore where he put the query… I don’t recommend this, but he put the query in the voice of the character because the character voice was the thing that sold the story. The query actually started with, “I don’t know how to write one of these things. They’re stupid.” Right? Or something along those lines.
[Brandon] Really risky.
[Mary] That’s really risky.
[Brandon] Really risky. But he got more responses to that query, and more requests for full manuscripts than he had ever gotten before.
[Dan] It’s because he followed it up. If it was just that one line, and then the rest was pedestrian, it wouldn’t have worked the way it did.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is Code Name Verity.
[Mary] So, Code Name Verity is an audiobook… I mean, it’s a print book as well. This is one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. It’s a fantastic story. It set in World War II. There are two narrators. You get all of one narrator, and then you get all of the second narrator. So it’s not going back and forth. It’s written in epistolary form. One of them is a… They’re both women. One of them is a spy, and the other is a pilot in World War II. These are both historically based. What you are reading in the first one, except that you’re listening to it. The narration is so good. It really feels like you are listening to her. You are… She has been… The book opens and she has been captured by the Germans and you are reading her confession.
[Mary] It goes from there. It’s amazing. I have been told that you should also pick up the print book, because there are some really cool typographic things that are going on in it, so… It is… This is the only audiobook that I finished and started listening to again.
[Brandon] Who was the author?
[Mary] The author is Elizabeth Wein.
[Brandon] That sounds awesome.
[Brandon] Let’s get back to this, because we also have proposals. What is the difference between a proposal versus a pitch?
[Dan] A proposal… At least, what I consider a proposal and how I use a proposal, that is when I’m talking to an agent or an editor and saying, “This is what I want to do. This is what this book is going to be about. This is how I want the series to work. This is where I want the series to go, or the book to go.” So that we’re on the same page with it. Now, that is a little different because I’m talking with agents and editors that I already work with.
[Brandon] Right. Usually, if you’re selling on proposal, you are already established as a writer. Now I’d say that the new writer version of this is sometimes they request an outline. Sample chapters and an outline. We got this very often when we were trying to break in.
[Mary] Or a synopsis.
[Brandon] Or a synopsis. Synopsis means longer. Now when I have asked this question so I can teach my students about it, I get varying answers, which seems to me that there is no specific. A lot of people say three pages-ish is what they got to. 1 to 3 pages… Some go like 3 to 5 pages. This is where you don’t actually give them an outline. Don’t do subheading A, subheading B, but do a three-page synopsis of your story, hitting the major characters, the major story points, and include the resolution.
[Dan] And the twists.
[Brandon] And the twists. Yep. Usually, you are not giving this without sample chapters, so they can see a sample of your writing, and then see if the story makes good on the promises in the sample chapters. Which, by the way, should always be the first chapters.
[Mary] Yeah. If you’re like, “Oh, it doesn’t get to the interesting stuff until chapter…”
[Mary] Your first several chapters need to be cut. This is one of the things that I struggled with a lot, was trying to figure out how to write the synopsis or the outline. One of the things that helped significantly was when my editor explained to me that what the real purpose of it was, for them, as a selling tool to go to the sales department.
[Brandon] Right. So one of the things that you’re trying to convey in this is the sense that the reader is going to have while they’re reading it. Which is why you want to make sure that you are including some of those twists. But you don’t include all of them. Because it is shorter. Particularly, if you’ve got something that’s a really complicated thing. But even in my novels, which are really short and straightforward, I don’t include every detail. Now for… What I can do is, I have… I pitched to Random House three different stories last year. To follow up Steelheart. They’re one sheet pitches. So they’re almost queries. They’re a little bit longer than a query would be, because they are really just you already know all the surrounding material, so it’s… They’re more in between a query and a proposal. I’ll put those on the Patreon for one of the upcoming months as one of the random hat rewards. So that those who are listening who want to grab that, will put them on there so that people can read them. I want them behind the wall because these are… They do spoil some things for books that are coming out. I don’t want them just floating around on the Internet anywhere. But we’ll stick those on there so you can see. I did three of these basically so that my editor and publisher could read them and then come back and say, “This is what we think is the best follow-up to what you’ve been doing for us so far.”
[Mary] I can also throw in the Glamorous Histories one, because Shades of Milk and Honey is a straight up query letter because I didn’t have an agent when I wrote it.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah.
[Mary] Then the ones that come later in the series, of course, I’m pitching to them.
[Brandon] We’ll put that on as our July…
[Brandon] Reward for the Patreon random hat level. So if you wanted a chance to jump on the Patreon, because I think you can just jump on for a month…
[Mary] A month.
[Brandon] And download all that stuff. Download most… All the stuff we put up before, and then jump off. You can just jump on for that month.
[Howard] Generally speaking, as we’ve talked about queries, you’re working with someone who you may have met once, but you don’t have a long relationship with, and you are trying to convince them that you have something that is going to be interesting to them and that you’re going to be good to work with. With a proposal, they’re probably already working with you, and what you are offering them is something that they believe they can sell. That’s… I mean, ultimately, all of these are going to somebody who is going to need to sell it. That’s one of the things that, as writers, we often forget. Is that when we’re pitching to editors, we’re pitching to agents, we are pitching to people who need to sell this to a larger audience. It’s difficult to… You can doublethink yourself forever there.
[Brandon] Two weeks ago, my editor at Random House sent me an email requesting, “Hey, can I get the updated one sheet pitch to give to marketing and to the art department so they can start working on these things.” I mean, they… That’s actually just happened to me.
[Mary] I’m going to recommend that you guys go back and listen to an episode from… With Michael Underwood where he was talking about how to hand sell your book, because a lot of the tools that we’re talking about are things that you use when you’re hand-selling. It’s a lot of the same things, of how to make your story sound appealing and recognizing that you’re going to shift it slightly depending on who you’re pitching it to, or who you’re sending your proposal to.
[Brandon] All right. Well, I think we’re out of time on that. I’m going to give you some homework. I want you to practice a verbal pitch. Kind of like I did earlier, hopefully you won’t stumble through it as much as I did. But that’s the point of this exercise, is I want you to write it out. I want you to memorize it. Then I want you to practice it with 10 people. I am going to force you to actually take a piece of paper and make a punchcard for yourself to punch… To have… the other people will punch and give you their initials. When you have done your 10 pitches to 10 different people…
[Mary] Tell you what. I will generate a punchcard that they can download on the website.
[Brandon] There you are.
[Brandon] Get your punchcard taken care of with 10 people and give yourself a prize after you’ve done it, because I want you to get so smooth with this pitch that you are able to give it when you’re very nervously approaching on editor, agent, or a reader if you’re self published, telling them what your book’s about. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.