Book Proposals: Queries that Pique Curiosity

“It’s pitching, hitting and defense that wins. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”

– Joe Garagiola

So, you’ve got a book project in mind. Something else that’s on your mind is probably publication! Authors may enlist the services of literary agents or deal directly with in-house editors when submitting work. Depending on where you’re submitting, agents and/or houses may want to see sample chapters or even the completed manuscript. I’ll cover these topics, too, but I’ll start with the most important part in selling your novel: your query. This is where you first pitch your book to an editor or agent, so you have to make it count.

Most of the pitch letters I’ve read through in my internships are for unsolicited manuscripts. That is, these letters didn’t come from literary agents, but from the authors themselves. A lot of publishing houses will only accept solicited manuscripts coming from an agent. Whether you’re seeking representation or pitching straight to the publishing house, you’ll have to write a query that says a bit about your project and makes the reader want to see more.

Some folks will want to see at least sample chapters right away, but most agents and editors are very busy reading through submissions and will simply ask for a query letter. Even if they’re looking for excerpts or more from the manuscript, it’s smart for you to send editors a query as a cover letter to introduce your work.

Typically, your pitch letter is 1 page with standard settings (1 in. margins; 12 pt professional fonts like Times New Roman, Helvetica, or Garamond; single-spaced). Be sure to check out submissions guidelines depending on where you’re sending your work, and if an available preferred name is given, address your letter as such (i.e., “Dear Ms. Paige” or “ATTN: Ms. Paige”). “Dear Editor” is the best option if you’re not sure on names. Try to avoid “Sir or Madam” and “To Whom it May Concern”—they’re formal to the point of impersonal. The editor-author relationship is an important one, and it’s not just business!

Once you’ve addressed your query, you’ll open with a hook, then move into a simple summary of your book’s plot and major characters. Include the title of the work, intended audience (i.e., “picture book,” “middle grade,” “YA,” etc.), and the approximate word count. After that, you can add what kind of audiences will enjoy the piece and why you think your work stands out from what already exists. Lastly, you may include a brief section about yourself as the author, but focus on what matters and what qualifies you as a professional. Thank the editor for his or her time, and let him or her know whether you are sending your manuscript exclusively to them or to multiple editors at a time.

Sounds pretty formulaic, right? You’d be surprised at how difficult query writing can be, though. You want to stand out, but going overboard trying to make your pitch different from others may hurt more than it helps. Believe me when I tell you that with most places, your stuff is going through an intern or two before it gets to an editor. Here are some guidelines and ideas for your queries, based on my experience going through the slush pile!

Formatting

Pages

As I said before, pitch letters are typically 1 page, maybe 2, but never more. They are quick and to the point, summarizing further materials the editor may be looking at. Standard white paper is best; letterhead is nice, though it doesn’t give you an edge. Keep the fancy paper simple if you choose to use it. Stationary with funky colors or patterns can be distracting or make the text hard to read. Though this is the first step in developing a bond with your editor, you want to present yourself the way you would to any colleague in a professional setting.

Text

Letters are single-spaced and should be typed only in academic fonts. Times New Roman, Helvetica, and Garamond are common font faces that are polished and easy to read. Using really fancy fonts can make your letter less legible or unprofessional-looking, just like with paper. Definitely don’t use script or decorative fonts, even if you only want to use them for the title. Set your letter up as you would any professional work (The Purdue Owl is my favorite resource for formatting, if you need guidelines).

Envelopes (for Snail Mail submissions)

This may just be a personal thing, but I find that since authors are creative people who are limited in how they can decorate their letters, the envelope is a chance to have a little fun. Anything from quirky stamps and return address labels (best) to stickers and illustrations (OK) can make your submission a little more enticing before the editor has even opened it. I’ve even seen envelopes in rainbow colors, like blue or pink! It shows a little personality coming from the person on the other side of the correspondence, but it’s not an obstacle to reading the material they have sent. As with anything else, don’t go overboard, but if you want to jazz up your submission’s look, this is the place to do it. Using a 9×12 or 10×13 envelope is preferred, though standard envelopes are OK. They give you less room for creativity, of course!

Keywords

Some agents and publishing houses are looking for specific  keywords. These can be placed within the body of the letter, the subject line for electronic submissions, or on the envelope for snail mail submissions, which some places will ask. Examples include “exclusive submission,” if a house is looking for works sent only to its own editors, or specific genres or age ranges a particular editor is seeking at the time, like “middle grade” or “science.” Check submissions pages; if editors are looking for specific topics, they’ll say so. Putting “middle grade mystery” on the envelope may help to get your piece read sooner than others. This isn’t always the case, but it never hurts.

Content

Hook

The first 1-3 sentences of your query should grab the editor’s attention and say something about your manuscript. A common technique is asking a rhetorical question; if the editor can answer without reading further, this isn’t going to work, but if he or she can’t, you may just have your hook. Which of the following sentences would you rather read?

  • Have you ever been to dragon school?
  • What if your school offered classes like “A History of Dragons” and “Slaying 101″?

The first question’s answer is an obvious no, and since the editor is going into your pitch letter cold, there’s no setup for it being a fantasy piece. “Dragon school” is unclear, because it kind of sounds like “you” are supposed to be a dragon. It’s a good concept to build on, since a dragon school is unique, but there’s not enough oomph behind it. The second question, on the other hand, gives the editor a good idea of the protagonist being a young dragon slayer of sorts in a middle grade or high school setting, and presents an engaging, humorous tone through the class names. It’s got a quirky spin that makes it more enticing.

  • What if girls played hockey?
  • Why would the shyest girl in school try out for the boys’ hockey team?
The first sentence probably means “What if girls played hockey with boys” or “like boys,” but right now, it just sounds like the author doesn’t know women’s hockey exists. Be sure not to simplify your questions to the point of sounding like you don’t understand the topic of your own book — or suggesting that the editor doesn’t understand the topic. Even if “with boys” or “like boys” were added, though, it would still be a rhetorical question that could be answered. With the second option, the editor is immediately given a sense of the protagonist and her unusual conflict, and there are many possible answers to that question — enough to warrant reading more.
  • Have you ever spent an amazing summer with horses?
  • What made Jackie think horseback riding camp was a good idea?

If the editor hasn’t spent an amazing summer with horses, you’re in trouble with that first sentence. To appeal to someone’s specific personal experience is risky; if the editor can’t relate, he or she may feel alienated reading the piece. Asking about personal experience can work in general sentences (“Have you ever had an amazing summer?”), but lack of specificity can make for a dull opener. The second hook introduces a character, a setting, and a question—yeah, why did she think it was a good idea? In fact, there’s a second question: why wasn’t it a good idea? By immediately establishing a problem, you make the editor wonder about the solution.

Aside from rhetorical questions, specific statements about the piece that highlight what makes it different are a good way to go.

  • Cassidy has never met Aunt Sally before, but after all the stories she’s heard, she’s not sure she wants to.
  • Being a pirate isn’t easy, especially when you’re only twelve years old.
  • Jake has a Very Big Secret that he can’t tell anyone.

Present an unstable situation right from the beginning to make an  editor want to read on. Single-sentence hooks are most common, but you can use 2 or 3 if you need them. Just be sure to keep it to the point.

Summarizing your story

Give the editor the bare-bones version of what happens in your story, from start to finish. Introduce important characters by name (all caps the first time names are used, regular type after that), and, yes, give away the ending. The summary will probably be the longest part of your pitch and should be one or two paragraphs long. Write it in your own voice, not from the perspective of a character. This is your talking to your editor. You may balk at telling upfront how the story ends, but the coy “what will happen” is for the book jacket, not the person helping you get there. Be brief, because this is a summary, not an excerpt. Try to follow a skeleton like this:

  1. Main characters’ names and defining characteristics (perhaps supporting cast, if relevant)
  2. Unstable situation
  3. Steps from Problem to Solution
  4. Resolution

For example: Twelve-year-old ANDIE MCKLEAN swears she’s getting taller every day. Her jeans are more like capris, her tees are too tight, and MOM’s started talking bra shopping to anyone who will listen, including KYLE KASEY, the cutest guy in school. If it weren’t for NANNA DIANA and her trusty sewing kit, Andie might never make it to thirteen without dying of embarrassment. Andie learns to sew from the best, and Nanna Diana teaches her about creating her own style — just in time for the school’s annual fashion show. Popular, petite BRITTANY seems like a shoo-in for winner of the Best Design, but with Nanna’s help and her new-found “tall girl style,” Andie takes the prize and becomes a hero for the quiet kids who’ve been picked on for being different.

Stats

Give the editor the title, genre, and word count for your piece. The word count should be a general rounded number (i.e., if you’ve written 45,323 words, just say “45,000″). Page counts vary depending on format and program, so they’re not accurate numbers. Tell the editor or agent what kind of readers you think will enjoy your book; you can even name-drop authors and titles of works with similar themes and goals as yours. Comparing your work to other authors’ may strike you as a typecasting kind of move, or even presumptuous, but it’s actually helpful to give your editors (and marketing, down the road) an idea of what kind of audience they’re looking at for this book. Explain why your book is different from others, especially if you’re tackling a classic conflict.

For example: FASHIONABLY TALL is a middle-grade novel of 32,000 words. Fans of Judy Blume and Julie Anne Peters will enjoy Andie’s coming-of-age story, which not only covers the struggles of preteen-hood but also addresses the sometimes-difficult and sometimes-wonderful aspects of being tall.

About the Author

By far the most difficult part of the pitch. Include first and foremost the details about what qualifies you as a writer. Tell the agent or editor if you are a member of any sort of writing organization, if you have attended workshops or conferences, if you have studied writing, and if you are already published. Magazine articles and short stories count! If you blog somewhat professionally (like a weekly book review, recipes, parenting advice, etc.) or write local articles, include it. If you are a specialist in a non-writing field that gives you credibility (i.e., you have a degree in biology and are writing a children’s book on evolution), include it.

If you have never been published before, you don’t have to mention it at all. Saying that this is your first book is OK, but it’s understood if you don’t include other credentials. If you have written for years but have not published, it shows that you’re interested in writing but also that you haven’t worked with a professional editor yet, so you don’t have to include that, either.

If you’re a teacher or a parent who wrote this story for the kids in your life, that’s an interesting detail to include, and a little background on the inspiration of the story or an anecdote is fine as long as it doesn’t take up most of your cover letter. Editors aren’t looking for your life story, but a little spark of the author behind the book is always appreciated!

Why this Addressee?

Do your homework before sending your submission anywhere. Find agents or editors looking for the kind of material you’ve written, and let them know why you chose them! If you’ve read other works their agency has represented or house has published, say so, and make a connection as to why that made you choose to send your work here. If you’ve written a historical book about samurai and are sending your work to an agent whose most recent book was a nonfiction book on the Tokugawa Shogunate, point it out. If you write middle grade fiction and are sending your submission to a publishing house with a strong middle grade catalog, bring it up. It shows that you’re paying special attention to this person’s business, which helps them to see how well you’d work together!

Closing Comments

Thank the agent or editor for his or her time. Always be courteous, and write in your own voice. Give editors a taste of what your writing is like. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship—and book, of course.

xo Paige

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